Sunday, December 14, 2014

Nobu, Berkeley Street

So my birthday was last week, and I enjoyed a delicious meal at Nobu in Berkeley Street.

Nobu is fairly well-known, if not very well-known, and gets referenced in movies, reality TV, and other venues fairly frequently. It's an international chain, with the NY locations being the most famous. The most popular dish is miso-marinated black cod, which we did not have because my husband actually makes a really nice miso-marinated regular cod and I figured it was better to imagine it's just as good, than to be proven right or wrong. ;)

Anyway, there was a time it was one of the big places to spot celebrities in London, but I think it's luster has worn just a bit - it's still a great location with good food & excellent staff, but it's just not riding the trendy wave at the moment. Frankly, I think that makes it a great place to go and celebrate something. I didn't really like the idea of being upstaged on my own birthday by say, a one Mrs. Charlize Theron tucking into a big hunk of lobster without even getting butter on her chin. Luckily the diners around us were normal, everyday folk who didn't accidentally shame me with their beauty, fame, or money. My kinda environment!

Seems we were feeling quite fishy that day, as we went with a real ocean spread. Starting off with 'crispy rice & spicy tuna', which might've been my favorite of the entire meal! It takes guts to go ahead and say, "Yeah, it's crispy rice. Gotta problem? It was by choice." considering that rice is so frequently applauded for being fluffier, softer, or stickier than thou.

This one was crispy through and through, and delicious for it! The spicy tuna on top was coated in a lovely creamy, spicy sauce. The tuna itself was mild & soft. The crispness of the rice, don't let it fool you - there was not that much chew to it - but it didn't stick to my teeth, which is what I was afraid of. I would really describe it as 'crispy', rather than chewy or crunchy. In the same way puffed rice is crisp, this had that sort of edge - but softer.

Next up was shrimp in creamy spicy sauce - you could have it tempura style, or 'regular'. We opted for un-tempura, as we had our eyes on an upcoming fried dish that is nuts. The shrimp served was massive, split nicely with the tails still on for what I can only presume is easy handling. The spicy sauce reminded me of a lot of Japanese food, like when you're served something there that comes with 'spicy mayo' it's quite a bit like that. Simple, but effective. The giant shrimps themselves I believe must've been wood grilled, because they had a really nice sort of char, wood grilled steak taste alongside the sweetness of the shrimp itself. This was probably my favorite dish of the night.

The main course for my birthday I had already decided on - a fine lobster tempura. I couldn't believe what I was seeing! Who'd ever thunk it - frying a lobster? Only in a Downeaster's fevered dreams could I imagine such a thing existing, and yet here it is. I think it's an entire lobster, taken apart, and tempura-fried. It's probably not the best lobster on Earth, but for the love of all that's good it's fried. What a world. As you might expect it tasted pretty awesome, with that soft & crispy batter that tempura is known for - and the delicate, buttery flesh that lobster has.

While it was definitely an amazing experience, I probably wouldn't order something like this again - I feel that perhaps when it was fried, some parts of the lobster got to be kinda chewy. Whatever the case was, that slightly disappointed me. There were some pieces that were perfectly soft, but others had a bit of toughness & chew that just wasn't good. This dish also came with a couple of dipping sauces, which didn't make a huge impression - yuzu truffle & spicy lemon garlic. I think I liked the yuzu one better of the two, but neither were really Earth-shattering. It was definitely worth the experience, but like I said, probably not a repeat order for most people, including me..

We ordered a couple of different desserts, but I can hardly remember my husband's so I can only review mine, whoops! His was the Macana - I remember it was well balanced with nuttiness & citrus zing.

I ordered the Eki-Nox, which was 'goma' and white chocolate mousse (two separate layers, I believe) with orange & chocolate cream, and a genmaicha ice cream. I had no idea what goma was, but it turns out it's sesame. Perhaps it's a different sort of sesame than I'm used to, as I didn't get much of the salty, kind of peanutty taste that I usually get with sesame flavored things. That's not to say it wasn't good, as it had a savory edge that made the white chocolate seem less sweet - and therefore, easier to wolf down. The genmaicha ice cream was super, genmaicha being the Japanese brown rice tea. It had a lovely roasted flavor which was very unique in an ice cream format. If you've ever had genmaicha, you'd recognize the taste straight away - very well done.

It was very sweet that when ordered our desserts they had done a nice little presentation for my birthday. I had just mentioned on the reservation that it was my birthday, figuring it couldn't hurt - and I was right. It was just a good level of specialness, with a candle & some sweet chocolate writing, I knew it wasn't going to be the kind of place where they sing to you - and I was glad, haha. It did make me feel happy - definitely the right amount of attention.

Over all it was a really great place to celebrate a special occasion - the servers were all nice & attentive at the right times & gone the rest of the evening. It's also interesting to note that they had a lunch menu with quite reasonable prices, takeaway (hard to imagine that level of luxury!) and also just a varied menu pricewise in general. It sounds expensive, but I believe you could enjoy Nobu on the cheapish if you came in with a plan & didn't have any alcohol! I'd happily go again, but probably for the lunch menu to keep my budget in mind.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Chips Ahoy! Birthday Frosting Filled Cookies

Sorry for the prolonged absence - I've been in various ways ill for the past month so I just didn't feel like doing anything taxing! While I was in fact eating snacks, I hadn't been writing reviews - I'll get back into the swing of things, I really missed blogging. So to cut a long story short, here's a cookie I received in my cool USA parcel!

Birthday cake & birthday frosting ARE flavors in their own right. There, I said it. It's not just vanilla and it's not just cake, it's got something special I can't quite put my finger on. American-style birthday cakes are just the slightest bit more extravagant than UK ones, as many American things tend to be. They're almost always slathered in thick buttercream frosting, with piped icing borders & sugar roses. I loved getting the roses, haha. Here's some examples of the kinds of birthday cakes my family would get. Fondant isn't that common, and any sort of frosting other than buttercream is rare. I've had some amazing cakes in the UK, but the frosting-to-cake ratio is very rarely in frosting's favor here.

That's why you gotta import your frosting-flavored goods from America - so I did.

I've spoken highly of Chips Ahoy! here in the past, both their root beer flavor cookies & the Dairy Milk collaboration. In the USA they were one of my favorite cookies, specifically I liked the standard 'crunchy' style, as I felt the chewy ones didn't have enough of a salty taste to really be like a true, homebaked cookie. This is a chewy style Chips Ahoy!, but the fact that it is full of birthday frosting really made it irrelevant - this is going to be sweet, no matter how much salt is in the initial mix.

The initial smell is very sweet & vanilla, and kind of nondescript. The look is kinda smooshy and small, interestingly not uniform but that could just be a byproduct of being shipped.

The taste is crazy sweet, without much variation. The frosting in the center is a very thin layer so it's a bit hard to notice, but carefully biting around to expose the frosting to the elements leaves me feeling underwhelmed...and also proud of my small biting ability. Years of Reese's eating, what can I say.

The frosting middle just tastes like sugar, and is a bit pasty in texture - that I don't mind, the stickiness and mouthfeel does mimic actual frosting quite well - not high quality stuff, but like, buttercreme. Bit of a margarine vs butter situation, because the taste was boring at best, and at worst, sort of odd and bitter. Surely that's from the chemicals, of which there are many in this cookie. My husband actually refused to eat any of these after the first one, and he's a guy who usually doesn't care about chemicals - I mean, he married an American and we're chock full of them from our beef & cookies.

Yeah, can't say that these cookies were a success. They did, however, get eaten by me eventually, and they were inoffensive when eaten as a whole. I don't recommend breaking them up to try & get to the cream - Oreos they ain't.

The good news is, my birthday is this week and there is a high probability that I will get the truest form of frosting-with-cookie, a cookie cake!

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Kurobuta Marble Arch

Kurobuta has been getting a lot of press lately - well, at least enough that my in-laws sweetly clipped a review in a newspaper about it and suggested me & my husband might like to go! It was a great review from Matthew Norman who was a fan of all but what he considered slightly over-excited service. Being an American I am more than at home engaging in chirpy banter with be-flaired waitstaff, and I knew that a professional British restaurant critic's perception of chipper would be no match for my lifetime of Applebee's dining back home. You want to talk about how cheesy your pizzas are? I can hang. You want to pretend to be interested in my day before I arrived here? Sure thing, I got all night.

Anyway, we love Japanese food, particularly menu items other than sushi, so after looking at the choices & checking out a couple more randomly selected reviews, we went on our anniversary!

The menu is described by many as 'Japanese tapas' - or as I like to call it, Japanese sharing plates. Either way, it's your classic set-up where you order about 3 dishes between yourselves and share. There was also a very nice cocktail & sake menu.

 I ordered the sake caipirinha with citrus fruits & sake, unsurprisingly, and we shared some very good quality sake solo. Hey, it was our anniversary. I was also very interested by a matcha latte cocktail - but I just didn't have the room in me to get it after all of our food, and I know from experience that creamy cocktails & food do not work in tandem for me. I'll have to try it next time though - matcha lattes are one of my favorite drinks, and it sounded lovely.

Our first course was Yellowtail Sashimi, which was served with a lovely & punchy yuzu soy sauce, and in the center there was something which had the texture of thinly sliced onion, and a herbal, onion-y taste. It reminded me of the more subtle flavor of a spring onion, but had the texture of something a lot more dense but thinly sliced. Look, I'm no vegetable expert, but I did like it. The sashimi was high quality, fatty & delicately flavorsome as it should be. It was nicely highlighted by the citrussy sauce.

Our next bit of food was one I really fought to get - baby shrimp tempura with spicy mayo. I really like tempura, how the batter is a bit crispier and a lot lighter than any other variety of batter, and I'm a fan of shrimp. Now, what the hell a baby shrimp is, I don't know - these did just seem to be regular English-size prawns to me. That's just poor nutrition - not being a baby, right? Either way, they were as tasty & light as the best tempura I've had elsewhere, and the mayo-based sauce went well enough, but did sort of overwhelm the taste of the shrimp & batter. I'd probably say it could stand to be a bit less creamy & heavy on the mayo - more of a light sauce. That's just me looking for something to criticize. Again it was served with a mysterious, perhaps julienned vegetable matter that had a oddly porous & dry texture, and little taste. This was nice with the spicy mayo, though!

We also had another fried item at the same time, which came with two dips, one very similar to the baby shrimp tempura. The spicy mayo went nicely with these though, and the other dip was a pungent & sour/sweet sauce that was even better with something salty and crispy. The tempura actually went better with this accompanying dip than the spicy mayo!

 The soba-ko sweet potato fries are lovely and one of the better deals on the menu, with a big portion for 2 just costing £4, If you like your fries crispy & not at all 'doughy' or fluffy potato-filled, these are perfect. Seasoned nicely with a bit of salt & something slightly tangy, they were very nice without dips, too. As far as the soba-ko goes, well, soba is noodles, and ko apparently means child...So not 100 percent sure, but I'd almost guess that maybe some soba batter is included in the fry? I'd love to know, as they're very tasty with an extra-crispy coating. Highly recommended!

This was the only true disappointment of the night, and when you've ordered this many courses and small plates it stands to reason they won't all be winners for every person. The 'junk food Japan' section of course caught our eye, and there is plenty more on there I'd still like to try like the sashimi pizza & miso grilled hot wings, but the thing I was most excited for from this part of the menu was the Wagyu beef sliders. With the promise of steamed buns (I've been chattering on about putting a cheeseburger inside a steamed bun since my review of Flesh & Buns) with traditional burger ingredients and the use of highly coveted Wagyu beef, I was terribly into it.

While yes, that was presumably a pillow-y soft steamed bun at some point, it had been grilled or otherwise manipulated into something that was actually pretty similar to a traditional burger bun. Not revelatory in texture as I hoped, but I figured the taste was going to make up for the slight disappointment in not seeing my dream softy-cloud burger come into existence. Unfortunately, it while the beef did have a strong beef flavor & a sweeter taste that did indeed seem 'special', I think it was completely masked by the onions & pickles.

 I love onions & pickles, but their inclusion here kinda brought the tone down a little too much for such a special variety of my opinion. I mean, you put pickles & onions on a sub-par burger and you bring it up a couple notches, but you put them on what should be a delicious burger and it just kinda taste like that 'improved' burger, ya know? They're strong flavors, and the beef was delicate and I wanted to appreciate it more, but I couldn't. While they weren't bad, this was the one menu item I felt let down by - and at £20 for the two of them, being slider sized, it really felt a bit like a rip. I'm willing to pay silly prices for things that taste good and are well thought out, but this sort of felt like the burger that gets non-adventurous partners to agree to come to the restaurant. What I'd do is get rid of all the burger trappings and maybe go for a 'Wagyu Hamburg Steak', something I just made up. In Japan they eat something called Hamburg Steak which is similar to American Salisbury Steak - it would be a true classing-up of Japanese junk food to serve a Wagyu version! With a bit of beef gravy & mashed potato, I think that would be a better way to serve this beef. Again, not bad food at all, but disappointing considering what I expected. To be fair, this is also my only experience with Wagyu beef. Perhaps that's about all it's meant to be?

Now, from a bit of a 'meh' to something that grabbed me by my lapels and screamed "GET ANOTHER ORDER OF ME, YA FREAK", these pork belly buns were unreal, tumbling in after the sliders. The sauce is an ambrosial 'spicy peanut soy', which is three of my favorite words. The pork belly was fatty fat fat, melting and sweetly succulent, and the buns themselves were the perfect soft & steamy clouds, opening like a gracious angel's hands to reveal meat & sauce. There's a bit of vegetable in there too, to add color & crunch to offset the otherwise incredibly soft portion. Seriously, that sauce was amazing - like a more savoury satay without any of the cloying creamy sweetness of those. Chopped peanuts, spicy soy & pork belly. One of the greats - and I love pork belly buns and judge them harshly. If you like steamed buns, these are a must-get. If you don't like steamed buns, eat one of these and then look me in the eye and tell me you still feel the same way.

Good place to end, huh? Well it didn't stop there. You may be thinking, 'CreamySteaks, close with a big finish - why didn't you put these at the end?' Because I'm nothing if not honest about the timing of my courses.

This was the beer-grilled beef fillet with wasabi salsa. The salsa was a nice addition, piquant against the light taste of a fillet. The beer grilling, well, I'm no beer expert but I suppose it did remind me of the taste of a barley-based soup! That must mean something. To be honest, I really enjoyed this one as did my husband, but I think since it came after the pork belly neither of us could really remember much about it. Whoops.

This was our dessert - it was very lovely but again, I have hard time recollecting exact details. It was a matcha mousse or marshmallow, I believe, with a spongy texture - some matcha cream dollops, some sort of I believe yuzu jelly, sesame crisp cookies that were very nice, and...two matcha sugar-coated doughnuts, that were filled with...matcha cream, I'm pretty sure. Again, very tasty, but I've forgotten most details so it isn't terribly fair to really 'review' it. Except for to say that I remember thinking it was a very nice way to finish off a heavy meal, as it was fairly light & gentle.

Over all, Kurobuta was a great place to spend our anniversary. The service was friendly & polite, and certainly didn't seem over-eager to me, which was what I was expecting given the review I had read before. Just friendly staff, not a lot of unrequited banter or suggestions. I would say don't come here if you want a quick meal before anything important, as it was a bit on the slow side, but this was good for us because we wanted to indulge and have a casual & laid back evening. I'd go back to try a few more things on the menu, and I'd definitely reorder the pork belly buns & the soba-ko fries.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Bubba Gump Shrimp, London

I've watched Forrest Gump so many times - well, let me be more specific - I've watched the first hour of Forrest Gump about 20 times in my life. Why, you ask? For some reason this was the video tape to put on if we finished a test early in my school days. Tangentially related to history, a heart-warming flick with an anti-bullying message, I guess it actually makes sense that they chose it...After the 10th viewing, however, I was ready to just put my head down on my desk & nap.

It's been years now since I last saw it, so I'm a bit rusty on my Gump. You could quickly re-learn here, however, because the entire restaurant is just full of Gump related ephemera...and it's playing on all the TVs. It's incredibly weird on it's surface - why in the name of God is there an international chain restaurant based off of a one-off film that, while very successful, isn't much of a cultural touchstone outside of the phrase 'Run Forrest, Run!'

Even that...I mean, I'm kind of old, but I've got to imagine in about 10 years people in their 20s aren't going to be saying that to each other...right? So Bubba Gump Shrimp will remain, and the references will all be lost. Seriously though, Forrest Gump never...opened a restaurant in the movie, right? Now granted, I've mostly only memorized the first hour, so I thought what happened was that they bought a shrimping boat?

Listen though, I'll buy any gimmick if it means you load my plate up with coconut shrimp. It's surprising to hear European waiters ask me what the name of Forrest's best friend was, and even more surprising when every single person in uniform that we passed on the way to-and-fro the table said "Hello, how are you? Are you hungry?" It's really endearing, I know the exact style of service they're going for but it's so foreign for European waiters that they don't have the 'natural' scripted feel yet. I'm sure it'll get better, or it will just slowly devolve into traditional UK service - which I'm fine with, actually.

So we ate lots of shrimp that night - and drank very fun novelty drinks that were well-balanced & tasty if you like fruity boozy ones! You also get to take home some of the glasses but you may have to ask as the waiters seemed slightly confused about which ones left the restaurant and which ones stayed behind. Just ask if you think your drink came with the glass, because while ours did say that on the menu the waitress seemed pretty certain it didn't. Again, not quite hitting the mark on the machine that is American chain restaurant service, but they'll get there.

Onto the food! We ordered the shrimp macaroni & cheese as an appetizer to split - it's definitely a big enough portion for two, and could conceivably be a decent main for one. Very cheesy with breadcrumbs on top, it's creamy, chewy, and crunchy all in one. There were also quite a few li'l shrimps in there, enough that I didn't feel like it was being at all cheap.

I ordered, of course, the coconut shrimp. Bubba Gump is like, the only place in London that serves coconut shrimp so for that alone they will have my loyalty forever. Big shapely shrimps, with a coconut infused batter and a mysterious sweet & sour sauce known only as 'Cajun Marmalade', It's delicious, and if you've never had coconut shrimp here's your chance...and it's good. It's just as good as it is in Japan & the USA, the batter perhaps a bit 'looser' off the shrimp, but I think that had more to do with this being an opening weekend than any sort of recipe change. If you go in a couple weeks, at a less busy time, I bet the shrimp is just as it is in America. Which is to say, super delicious. Obviously the portion sizes are smaller than in the US (or may I add, in the Japanese locations - also huge portions there) and it's more expensive...but hey, get out of the UK if you want to eat gigantic plates full of meat & cheese for cheap.

As far as drinks go, I got the Louisiana Lemonade with strawberries, and it was nicely tart & sweet with basically no rummy taste. It did have a boozy feeling, however - a great choice for people who want to get a little buzz on without tasting alcohol...AKA, me.

 My husband got the peach iced tea drink, which was served in a very weird Mason jar with a stem. It tasted stronger, but was still quite nice with a delicate peach taste indeed. If you want a stronger or more classy drink, you might just want to skip going to a novelty shrimp restaurant imported from the USA, haha.

The desserts left something to be desired, I think. They didn't bring over the Cookie Sundae from what I could see, which is a big half-baked 'skillet cookie' with ice cream & whipped cream on it. Really nice, I'm surprised it isn't here. Hell, maybe it's illegal to serve that much saturated fat at once in the UK.

 I also get the feeling that the strawberry shortcake on offer wouldn't be in the traditional Southern style of a (US) biscuit base, and would instead be the bastardized Yankee version with angel food cake, or more likely here, sponge cake. Either way, pah...make it a biscuit or get outta town. We didn't bother getting any of them, but we were also very full - odds are good the desserts are an after-thought because so few people will end up ordering them as they are definitely big portions, especially for the UK.

Don't go if you want a classy night out in London, or if you are really snarky & cynical about servers who pretend to/do care about their jobs, or if you maybe have a great fear of restaurants with lots of Americana bric-a-brac on the walls. If you're happy to just eat some tasty shrimp & enjoy pleasant service this would be a good choice. Just don't compare the menu prices to the US locations, and you'll have a fun time.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Collective Dairy, Spiced Pumpkin Yogurt

Everybody knows Americans love pumpkin spice. This is just the first news article I could find, but I don't need to be the one to tell you that you can get pumpkin beer, pumpkin candles, pumpkin cheesecake, pumpkin English muffins, pumpkin cream cheese, and pumpkin whipped cream in basically every single grocery store in the USA. In the four years I've lived in the UK, it's been one of the main things I've missed - Halloween and autumn are just not nearly as celebrated here, and why? Why? WHY? 
Even though Halloween isn't as big of a deal, it still doesn't explain the lack of pumpkin spice. If an entire nation is into it, you've got, got to presume it's good, right? Then why do I still hear English people scoff at the PSL in Starbucks? Guys, guys. Get on it. Millions upon millions of Americans & Canadians cannot be wrong.

 Everybody else is getting it! Japan likes pumpkin, and...well, presumably maybe also other places. Anyway, all that being said, things are getting better. For one, when I first moved here the Pumpkin Spice Latte was naught but a dream. It's been available for the past couple years now, and shows no signs of going away. To my English brothers & sisters out there, thank you for giving it a shot - your bravery has been rewarded by a sweet, spicy, milky dream. My fellow ex-pat Americans, we can consider this one a win. We're still working on free refills, Trader Joe's, & cheap gas. Fight the good fight.

Fighting alongside me is the fine folks of The Collective Dairy - I've seen them a bit before, and I liked their marketing. Big hearty tubs of yogurt with nice typeface, but unfortunately none of the flavors really appealed to me - not enough for an enormous tub of yogurt that only I will eat, at least. When I read that they were releasing a Pumpkin Spice (or rather, 'Spiced Pumpkin') all that changed.

Not only is it pumpkin spice, they even went so far as to make the tub Halloween-y. Thank you, Collective Dairy, for bringing some very unexpected spooky mirth to the yogurt aisle.

It's a full fat yogurt (but not made with cream), so it's nice and thick with just a hint of tang. Really, a nice top drawer yogurt - the kind that you can eat plain and feel satisfied due to the thickness & taste.

The true reason it's brilliant though is the spiced pumpkin swirl. I didn't know what to expect given the UK's 'meh' relationship with pumpkin spice, so I approached with caution. I was wrong to doubt, because this would be a great example of pumpkin spice yogurt in America - and that's saying something coming from an American who was an early adopter of the pumpkin spice phenomenon.

If you've ever tried Trader Joe's Pumpkin Butter, it's almost identical. So, spicy, sweet, with just a tiny nearly citrus edge. Basically, it's delicious pumpkin pie filling, thinned out, ginger'd up, and put into a yogurt. It's great.

I never come across yogurts and think to myself "That would make a good dessert." My husband is a fan of the whipping cream yogurts that often carry dessert-like flavors & calories, but to me they're always just a let-down. I mean, end of the day, it's yogurt, right? This yogurt changes things. I'd consider this a great dessert, an amazing breakfast, or a delicious lunch. I'd eat it all day, and stare lovingly at the jack-o-lantern and bats that dance alongside the container. Smooth move, The Collective Dairy.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Moringa BAKE - Cookies & Cream

Since I was in Japan in the summer, there were a lot of these 'baked chocolates' - they're meant to keep your hands mess-free unlike regular chocolate. It's a pretty cool idea! I've tried one of these type before, in a 'Cheese Brulee' flavor.

If you read that review, you'll see how much I love the texture of these types of chocolate, they're sort of like brownies with perfect edges & gooey middles.

This was the Cookies & Cream edition, they were quite a common sight. I guess cookies & cream is a can't-go-wrong flavor in Japan, too!

 These were different textually, however, as the inside was much more 'creamy' than the cheese brulee. The cheese brulee was like a gooey but solid fudge inside, whereas the cookies & cream had a very soft, airy cream on the inside. The outside was still like that brownie edge, crispy & intensely cocoa-y.

The flavor of the cream was quite subtle, not terribly sweet, more vanilla & butter than anything. Sort of like a less sweet Oreo cream - the texture was certainly like that, ever so slightly grainy. I think it would've been a cool effect if there were bits of cookie mixed into the cream itself - as it is, when you crunch through the very thin layer of baked chocolate you're left with just the subtle cream.

There are 10 pieces in each pack, and when split between two people the little bits don't seem like much. I recommend getting 2 packs if you're looking to share!

This flavor & quite a few others are available on NapaJapan, including sweet potato & creme brulee - both of which I'll be reviewing later.

I'm glad that summer is coming to an end for many reasons, but one of them is certainly so I can get chocolate more easily shipped to me from Japan!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Japan Food Round-Up, part 2 - Drinks

What's the number one thing to come out of vending machines in Japan? You could make a pretty blue joke right now, but this is a family blog so I'll stick to the honest answer: drinks!

Not only are there lots of drinks in vending machines, there are also lots & lots (& lots) of drinks in shops. It's amazing the selection of both alcoholic & non alcoholic beverages in Japan. In carton format, in cans, in bottles, whatever you can dream of, they've put a drink in it. Here's an extremely cool example. I took a couple covert snaps inside of a Lawson 100, a discount store like a Dollar Tree or a Poundland except in Japan and 100 yen. Of course, not everything was just 100 yen, as you can see the alcohol was about double that price, making it an amazingly just over a £1 a can, for drinks that range in ABV from nothing to 9 percent. Oh, did I mention they all taste really nice & well blended? Because they do.

Calpis Sours are really, really nice. I also had those 'Strong' chu-hi drinks a lot, and they give you quite a fun buzz with a zesty, fruity taste. They're mostly citrus fruits, so it does a good job masking the taste of alcohol. The 'Strong Zero' variety are zero sugar, and they weren't nearly as nice - tasted a bit bitter for the most part. There are a bunch more of these canned boozy drinks, some of which I will get more in-depth with later on in this post.

I took this picture mostly because Energy Water cracked me up, and I never want to forget that it exists. Now these cartons are just 100 yen - unbelievable, huh? That's less than a £1, and just about a $1 for a liter of Honey & Apple juice, or Chardonnay Water. Or hey, even Energy Water. There's a bigger selection than this, I just snapped a quick one, but you can also expect cartons of pre-mixed lattes, flavored milks the likes of which you've never seen, royal milk tea, mochas, ramune flavored juice (?), and many more esotasty things. Esotasty is esoteric & tasty - feel free to use it.

Here's a drink I had a couple times - they have a lot of fresher coffee variants like this, from various brands. This Starbucks one was probably my favorite, as it was salted caramel. Of course it's my favorite, if you read this blog much at all that's no shock! The rest of these fresh, refrigerated coffees were quite nice - mostly very milky & sweet, like canned coffees but these tasted less canned. Makes sense! It wasn't a very saline-heavy drink, it seemed like they increased the sugar quotient in the caramel & then added a bit of salt. It was still very nice - not as good as a fresh salted caramel mocha from Starbucks (wish they'd bring it back this year) but hey - not bad at all.

We only went to McDonald's twice on the trip, the menu at the time was actually quite boring - not boring, however, were the McFizzes. These particular ones are the McFizz McFloats, in the flavors of McMelon & McMango. They were so generous with the soft serve, it was definitely more a dessert than a drink. However, it was still refreshing! Like the McFizz in Singapore, it was heavy on the syrup at the bottom so you have to mix it up a bit, but when you do it's a nicely balanced fruity drink. These are such a cool idea, it's a good way for a company like McDonald's to experiment with different flavors at a low cost - it's just the syrup investment.

This was a strange one, but I really enjoyed it - my husband loved it! It was so sour and mouthwatering, as you drank it you just wanted more. I think the zero meant no sugar, and if this contained actual vinegar it was probably a pretty healthy drink. Or it was just super-sour artificially sweetened water. Either way, I liked it loads and wish there was a drink half as sour that was readily available!

This was another weird one, a bottled soda float experience. I'd say it did a fairly good job of replicating the middle portion of a float - where the ice cream & soda first converges. It was thicker than soda, tasted a bit vanilla-y, but mostly like sweet Japanese cider, which sort of tastes like Sprite. So, kind of like thickened vanilla Sprite but in a really cute opaque color & with adorable label art. Not as refreshing as some of the other drinks I had, considering the thicker consistency - but definitely a nice way to get a little sugar in your system.

I really love bubble tea, and going around to London's varied bubble tea places is always a big treat. I've found one very near my office and I'm trying hard not to go everyday - so it stays special. If I lived in Japan, it would be impossible not to drink one of these everyday.

Oh yeah! On the shelf of convenience stores, just grab yourself a coconut milky bubble tea! This was delicious - thick like coconut milk (might've even been that) and lots of little pearls. I've heard rumors of Asian grocery stores in London stocking canned bubble tea...but I've yet to see evidence of that. Although I'm not sure canned would be that nice...

I mentioned earlier all these delish, fruity chu-hi boozy drinks, here are 3 that we bought one night. The hi-ball was my husband's, he liked it. The 'Roomy', while I don't have any idea what it means, was very nice and light. Peachy with a touch of apricot. The apple was super nice, very red & juicy tasting. All of them have a slight taste of alcohol, but it's nice and subtle.

Well, that's drinks of Japan for you! There were a few more I had at restaurants, but I'm going to save those for another round-up...a restaurant one, haha.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Quest Nutrition - Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough

It might be surprising to hear, but there was a time in my life I actually ate quite healthily. After struggling with my weight as a teenager, I lost about 70 lbs (30 kg) in my early 20s. I did this in the traditional way: diet & exercise. I ate the same kind of food everyday, mostly chicken breasts, cottage cheese, greek yogurt, protein bars - snacks were always healthier, and I rarely ate out. It gave me a lot of confidence that I didn't have as a young girl, and it's something I'm very proud of.

 I've dropped off the majority of those good habits throughout the years, but I've kept up a few things that I think have helped me maintain a healthy weight regardless - calorie counting & protein bars.

I know protein bars aren't the best way to get protein, and some of them are nothing more than glorified candy bars, but I find them so filling & convenient for breakfast. I figure I don't have time to cook breakfast, and cereal doesn't keep me feeling full until lunch, so it works for me - and it's better than a pastry. If you struggle with low calorie & convenient breakfast options that keep you feeling satiated they're a good option.

 Quest Nutrition is definitely a top player these days, and for good reason. 20g of protein in their bars is nothing to sneeze at, and packing it into a bar that is under 200 calories is impressive. There is a wide range of flavors too, but my favorite is definitely the cookie dough. I warm it up in the microwave, but you can also bake it in the oven a bit. Warmed in the microwave it is like actual cookie dough - very soft, the only difference is it's slightly chewier. As you can see, it gets pretty shiny looking.

The texture when not microwaved has more chew to it - it's not as taffy like as some other protein bars, it's still pretty soft, but I'd always recommend microwaving them. Here is a cut-away after being microwaved for about 10 seconds.

It tastes like straight up cookie dough, with dark chocolate chunks. Now, as I mentioned, I've been eating protein bars for years - so that 'protein taste' other people complain about? I don't really notice it. So I can't objectively say whether or not it has that taste, but I can tell you that my husband who never really ate protein bars before doesn't pick up anything nasty at all. He really likes these too, for the same reasons I do - convenient & filling at breakfast. It's got a wheaty flavor like a home made chocolate chip cookie, and the dark chocolate is plentiful and blends really nicely.

They're pretty expensive for protein bars, but the quality is so much nicer than a Slimfast or a similar bar in UK grocery stores. It's a shame that this market hasn't taken off here as much as it has in the USA - back home I can get dozens of varieties of different brands at the grocery store, most of them clocking in around half the price as they are here. That being said, I think the market is increasing and certainly one business is bringing a bunch of my USA favorites to the UK, and brands I've never heard of, as well.

The very best place to get protein stuff is Protein Pick & Mix in the UK. Great selection of Quest bars and all sorts of other protein-y things. Customer service is super nice too, I've purchased from them tons because like I said, I eat these for breakfast at least 5 days a week. They're very genuine, and you can tell they care about their customers and the products that they stock. I trust everything on there to be well-curated and worth a try because of their honesty.

If you guys liked this review, and maybe you'd like to see more protein bar reviews just let me know in the comments. I eat tons, so there would be plenty of content haha, just don't know how interested the snacking community at large is with these, and I'm not really blogger at all, just kind of a lazy former fitness fan. I don't want to clog up snack feeds with protein bars!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Japan Food Round-Up, part 1 - Japanese Vending Machines

I've already covered one Japanese snack from my last trip, and these articles will be more like quick snaps of the meals I ate, the snacks I had while there, and my general musings about this vacation.

To start - I was anticipating less "weird" food & drink this time around, as that has been the trend in Japan for at least a year or so. There have been way less 'wacky' KitKats (exception being bakeable custard pudding, which was very innovative but I'd already tried it), and no 'strange' Pepsis released since Pepsi White of last year, reviewed here. Who knows why, I can also tell you that there is a bit of a shift in fashion as well; even though I don't follow fashion as strongly as I do snacks, I did recognize way more "Americana" influence there than before - lots of J Crew. Disappointingly, the women's fashion was very Tumblr/blogger influenced, same as it is here in the UK. That means a lot of the same sorts of things that you can find in a Next or Topshop, which isn't very good for me as I like the more bright/pastel color palettes & 'cute' clothes that used to be easy to find in Japan. Oh well, times they are a changing, and maybe I should too!

I'll never compromise on snacks, though. Never. So it was with some regret that I report back that yes, there were much less wild & wooly snacks than there were last time I was there. Now, some of this might have to do with the fact that I now have pretty easy access to Japanese snacks, whenever I want, thanks to NapaJapan, Candysan, and OyatsuCafe. If I see something I want, generally I can get it online now - not necessarily the case 3 years ago, due to some sites not being around and me having less of a snack budget, haha.

So, all that being said there was still plenty of interesting and tasty things on this trip to report back on!

Vending machines were still a very common sight - I was mentioning on Twitter how it would be nice if there were more of these in London, but I think even more than the machines themselves I want the options. These were just in the airport, for example:

You can't make out very well what's here (even zoomed in, sorry!) but it's a combination of hot and cold drinks of varying types. Fruit drinks, coffee, hot chocolate, teas, et cetera. 

Here's a little more detail - as you can see there is an almond drink of some sort, either hot chocolate or a coffee beverage. Lots of coffee options, and even more in the zoomed out pic. You can see a couple examples of juices too, including an intriguing Orange Julius type drink at the bottom left.

I regret never trying anything from this ice cream machine - not only was it at Narita Airport, I also spotted them frequently in arcades and on the street. It was so steaming hot, it's crazy that I didn't have even one! The most interesting flavors available in this one are green tea & red beans, watermelon with funny black specks, shirokuma (condensed milk, bits of fruit and mochi), and two 'squeezy' looking tubes of soda flavored sorbet, cider & orange. They look like they might be slushie-style. 

These Van Houten Cocoas are very nice - I had them often when I was in Japan a few years ago, and never got around to trying one while I was there this time around. I had a few other cold chocolate drinks though, and in the same way they were strongly flavored - unlike chocolate milk elsewhere. I think since they're geared more for 'adult' tastes there is just a bit more an actual cold hot chocolate, not just a chocolate milk. What a distinction, only a goober like me would even think there was a difference. But there is!

The canned coffees seen are just two examples out of dozens upon dozens seen in Japan. The differences, I feel, are generally pretty minute. The ones labelled 'black' are generally just that, black coffee without sugar. The ones I usually drink are any that aren't labelled black, because they're almost always quite milky, sweet, and easy to drink. They have a caffeine kick, but I think your average coffee aficionado would see little resemblance between these and their favorite flat white. I like both, personally. Coffee culture is making some inroads in Japan, I noticed quite a few sweet little European looking cafes, but I think it's still not as common as tea, for instance. Or these canned coffees. While we were there, the weather was so incomprehensibly hot that a steaming cup of joe would've been a nightmare.

This was a cool machine in the airport that was all Disney themed snacks and little bits. I think there was a row of little metal jewelry boxes. There were also very well-boxed Minnie Mouse truffles, and little cookies & Toppo snacks, all Disney-decorated.

You know Japan is truly the land of vending machines: here are a few more from the trip.

This is a pretty standard entry - big cans of Coke, water in both flavored & vitamin enhanced varieties, plain waiter, a selection of canned coffees, 'Real Gold' which tastes like boiled sweets & is very nice (allegedly also vitamin enriched) and my personal favorite - Grape Fanta. I so wish that this would come out in the UK - grape soda is delicious, and yeah, I know you can get it through Ka so not all is lost - but considering how many weird varieties of 'red fruits' Fanta comes out with here in England you'd think they'd at least toss one grape in the mix. It's a standard flavor elsewhere, after all.

Here's a slightly more exotic machine, not a real familiar brand in sight. I can't believe I never tried that green can on the top row, furthest right: I think it was meant to be a guarana Brazilian style soda with an 'ice cream float' texture. I did however try one of these 'soda float' pre-mixed drinks, and I'll talk about it in my drinks round-up...later. The rest of the machine is full of juices, tea drinks, vitamin drinks, water and of course, more canned coffee. This one struck me as particularly strange - like a lot of them sort of have a theme: this one is mostly soda, this one is mostly coffee, this one is mostly water & 'healthier' drinks...that's nearly what this one is, but Power Squash and the guarana one don't seem healthy? If anyone has any insight, I'd love to hear it!

I wish I would've gotten more pictures of vending machines - after awhile it just felt a bit conspicuous, like I was a particularly weird tourist. I don't mind being a tourist, I just don't like being a weird one that obsessively documents what is otherwise daily, normal life. The most exciting ones were also in the busiest & 'coolest' areas, like Harajuku and Akihabara, so I didn't want to be backing up trying to get the perfect shot & getting in the way of another person's 'perfect shot', haha.

The true question on everyone's lips - what was my favorite find in the vending machines? CC Grape, of course! Yep, it was like CC Lemon (which is lightly carbonated in Japan, at least it seems most varieties are - the imported bottles in the UK are always flat & more juice-like) but grape flavored! So a bit tangy, not too sweet, and very refreshing. The best part is that we share initials.

My husband's favorite was the Pepsi Refresh Shot, which you can buy at NapaJapan. It was just a short can of slightly sweeter tasting Pepsi, but he loved it. It doubled the caffeine of regular Pepsi, so maybe it was more of an addiction than a love.

My next round-up is coming soon, but I'm not sure what to write about next! so, tell me - what would you like to see first?
  • Savory snacks
  • Drinks
  • Sweets (might have to be 2 posts, haha)
  • Meals
  • Final Fantasy Cafe Eorzea

They'll all get written, but what's the most exciting? 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Takenoko No Sato, Mellow Chestnut

I'm back from Japan! It was a lovely two weeks...week and a half, maybe - but it feels nice to be back home. We ate tons of good food, and I'll be looking back on the trip in big installments like my previous Singapore & Berlin series, but as a nice starter I've already snacked on one of my bring-home treats: these bamboo shoot shaped cookies that you may have seen in many flavors elsewhere.

Takenoko no Sato means Bamboo Shoot Village, and the inner packaging reflects that by showing you a relaxing old-timey village scene. Am I to believe that these cookies are living out normal, village-type lives inside this rattling box? And here I come, just eating them one of by one & in some cases, two by two. Life's not fair, cookies, get used to it.

This flavor particularly is 'Mellow Chestnut', and I had an interesting experience with it. When bitten into, there is a weird savory edge that is a bit unpleasant. If you've ever had mont blanc and felt like "gee, suddenly this tastes a lot more like what I expect an acorn to taste like than a delicious nutty dessert paste" than A) you're just like me, and B) you'll know just what I mean, flavorwise. Chestnut is certainly not the only nut that falls victim to this, it's happened to me with almonds & hazelnuts alike.

However, when allowed to melt in the mouth the taste is, in fact, very mellow. Nutty & creamy, seamlessly blending into the buttery cookie. It seems to be an actual chestnut flavored white chocolate given the melt quality, rather than a 'coating'. I think they'd be really nice with tea or milk, but they're quite tiny so no dunking.

 I did consider a cookie soup sort of recipe with these...Cookie soup of course being my childhood culinary masterstroke: as many cookies as you care to eat stacked in a bowl, pour milk on top, eat with a spoon. Do combos - multiple cookie types, different milk flavors, add toppings...Cookie soup truly is the most versatile dessert soup of them all. These would integrate very nicely into any form of cookie soup.

 The smell might put off some, as it is a bit earthy - but when you're eating chestnut flavored, bamboo shoot shaped cookies that's part of the charm, huh? It's only earthy in the way that some nuts are.

There are about maybe 20 in a box - I split it with my husband as a little snack and we both felt pretty satisfied.

If the flavor of mellow chestnut doesn't strike your fancy, there are tons more. NapaJapan has a good size selection, I'd love to try the Maple one sometime.

Look forward to more to come from Japan, both individual reviews and retrospectives & general thoughts on the food available this time around!