Monday, August 27, 2012

Honey Toast Box Virgins at Pearl Drops Teahouse

Pearl Drops Teahouse on Urbanspoon Pearl Drops Teahouse sits at one end of Burnaby's East Hastings busy stretch of stores and a heck of a lot of eateries. By around 7pm, the immediate area around it is a ghost town, so on the up side you won't have to compete too much for parking. On the down side, you sort of have to know about this place for it to show up on your radar. Its neighbours are all closed by that time, and the nearest other place for drinks is the liquor store across the street (I suppose if you desperately need alcohol, you could buy something there to spike your bubble tea here).

I admit that I haven't gone to many bubble tea houses, so I can't really do a proper review here about their menu except to say whether I liked it or not. (Sorry David! <-- Yup, I am personally acquainted with the General Manager, but obviously this review isn't really going to help Pearl Drops Teahouse all that much.)

The short of it is, if you're used to Starbucks prices though, you basically get twice as much for the same price, and that's before a possible discount from their loyalty card or if you can find one of their sponsorships. Plus they have contests and promotions, such as this year's 2-day 50% (!) off Facebook Fans Exclusive Special in the first half of August. All this, I like. Even if you think their prices are a bit higher than everyone else's (say, way out there in Richmond), they do reward loyal customers.
We went on a 10%-20% discount and there was no quibbling or attitude from our lovely server Marika. She calmly checked the validity of it, and thereafter was very pleasant, patient, and helpful to what was essentially a bunch of people who'd never set foot in a bubble tea house. Out of the nine of us, there were just two Asians and one of them (me) was definitely a bubble tea noob.

Small pots of tea kept hot with small candles were under $5. Their popular "Oasis slush" (mango, lychee, passion fruit -- and it really is delicious) in what amounted to a Venti-sized glass mug was just over $5 with mango star jellies and some very dark pearls. No thanks to Starbucks we are paying about $5 for our coffees now. But thanks to them, everywhere else is cheap in comparison.

The hot food/savory food menu here is tiny -- just two items -- but very nicely done. For $4.25 each, you can get a plate of ping-pong ball sized deep fried and beautifully plated takoyaki; or five pieces of deep fried mashed potato (korokke). Crispy and beautifully browned on the outside, and not oily.

Pearl Drops Teahouse is a very small cafe-sized place, and a bit tight inside. There's a late evening rush, so go early or make a reservation if you need to seat a larger group of 6+ persons.
When we were there last Friday, there were just three girls working the restaurant. This meant they were responsible for everything, including table service, counter service, cooking, and dishwashing. At one point we were short of sharing plates and forks as they raced to wash the cutlery -- this on top of prepping three orders of Honey Toast Box. If you're caught in the late evening rush, be prepared to wait a bit.
The overall ambiance is a bit lacking due to what they have to work with in terms of the neighbourhood and the building and store layout), but there are signs that short of ordering an overhaul renovation they are doing what they can to make it classy, including curtains to block off the guts of the operation; a side table with internet access and books on tea; and an elegant shelf with tea products.

The main purpose of our little outing was to try the Honey Toast Box -- a Taiwanese invention that's making in-roads here, but it still not that common. Heck, it doesn't even have a Wikipedia entry yet! Since none of our group had ever had a honey toast box, it's hard to compare it, but it was interesting to see what we did to it. (And obviously, the following isn't a critique of Pearl Drops Teahouse per se, but on the concept of Honey Toast Boxes in general).

Basically, a honey toast box is a loaf of bread that's lightly toasted and lightly honeyed so even if you just had the bread alone, there was a little bit of flavour other than "bread". Not much, though.
The insides of the loaf are pulled out, honeyed and toasted, and put back in. Then the rim is trimmed with custard, and it's filled with blocks of New York Cheesecake (without the crust), ice cream, fruit, chocolate-coated sticks, or other goodies -- of course different tea houses will have their own signature styles.

The cubic bread box one at Pearl Drops Teahouse ($9.95) is about the size of a regulation sized loaf of bread, cut in half and the mushroom cap chopped off. About six inches to a side. It's more or less as shown in the picture on the right, but the actual layout and contents will vary slightly as they continue to refine the composition (they only introduced it in February of this year).

Right off I have to say that the concept of a Honey Toast Box is seriously flawed. Warm toast + cold ice cream gives you cold toast + warm ice cream, neither of which are very appealing, especially if the ice cream starts to melt into a lukewarm milk, which it can do easily without any help from a warm toast box at room temperature.

There were three boxes at our table of nine, which turned out to be a good ratio as we ended up with not much leftover bread. For two persons (remembering that the dessert includes about a half loaf of bread) this could be a very light meal or a big dessert.
When eating it, you have to be mindful of your friends because you could inadvertently pick up most or all of the cheesecake, as it's very similarly coloured with the scoop of ice cream. Also, the fruits and sticks and other things could be scooped up by your friends, and you might be left hunting for custard, ice cream, and cheesecake -- which makes for a very monotonous flavour.

Team MMT dove right in and right away ate up probably half of the goodies. And although it looks like the box is probably filled with ice cream, this is extremely deceptive because it's all sitting on the toasted bread inside. What dessert you see on top is really all that you get, with nothing below (except toasted bread). Nevertheless, this is probably how the uninitiated would have handled it.

Team MSN nibbled at it but were largely held back by the initial lack of cutlery. We pulled out the chocolate sticks to start. By the time the knives and forks got there, our server was also on hand to show us how it was done. Initially no one wanted to take a full piece of a side of the toast box or chunk of toast from inside, but this was just time consuming and it tended to make a mess during the cutting. There are four sides of toast plus the bottom and the inside. It is easier simply to deconstruct the box right away and not be shy about taking a whole side of toast box since there's clearly enough to go around.

Team KEA hesitated and waited for the server, so they probably had the best and most balanced experience of pairing bread with filling. I didn't see watch too closely how they handled things but they ended up with some bread.

The best way to eat a honey toast box is to pair the stuff with bread -- unless you are willing to give up most of the bread, in which case, why are you ordering a honey toast box to begin with? It is almost $10, and instead of partially paying for the labour involved in toasting the box and assembling the dessert, you could go with about 3/4ths the price and just get a dessert with most of the filling, minus the box.

I think for convenience, the Honey Toast Box could use some deconstruction. The part that was trickiest, and which destroyed the dessert more quickly than anything else, was probably cutting the sides of the box off. It is easy enough to cut down the corners, but after that, how do you take off a side? Tearing was possible but because the crust at the bottom had been taken off, trying to tear a side off instead of cutting it off could have ripped the dessert apart and made it an unappetizing mess for your dining partners. A mix of scoring it with the tip of a sharp knife and then ripping it (if you couldn't manage to cut right through) probably works best.

It wouldn't be a box any more if you deconstructed it, but I would still be in favour of a deconstructed Honey Toast Box. That is, pre-cut the box into thin slices with the crust, and thicker slabs of the softer insides. Toast everything lightly with honey or drizzle the honey on later. Assemble that in whatever neat shape you want (like a jenga puzzle, maybe) and the the rest of the plate could hold the goodies to put, spread, or scoop on.
This method also has the advantage of making it easier to get at the inside of the box, since you no longer need to keep the box intact.
But, as mentioned, it would no longer be a Honey Toast Box, with the box novelty.

My experience of the Honey Toast Box at Pearl Drops Teahouse was only "okay" BUT that comes with qualifications. Clearly the dessert has fruits and a bit of chocolate from the chocolate covered sticks. Somehow almost all of those got devoured by the time I got my bread ready, and mostly what was left was ice cream. Which made things really monotonous and boring. After that was gone, we still had some bread left, and that was definitely boring.
So your experience of any Honey Toast Box (not just the one at Pearl Drops) will depend on how considerate (or mindful) your sharing buddies are -- There's a certain amount of politeness and yielding that needs to be present for everyone to have a proper taste. Also, unless you're ready to just let some bread go uneaten, pacing your pairing of bread and dessert filling is also important.
A Honey Toast Box has the disadvantage of being a dessert that gets more boring as you go along, unlike most desserts or even most dishes. With a slice of cake, slab of brownie, scoop of ice cream, or bubble tea, it's more or less good from the first bite to the last. Not so with this type of dessert.

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