Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Chewy Junior

Chewy Junior on Urbanspoon Finally made it down to Chewy Junior, the "puff" chain from Singapore.
The store is small but nicely arranged so that there are three tables of four seats. Plus a very clean washroom (can I give bonus points for that?).
  • Unlike a "normal" cream puff, Chewy Junior puffs have a rather chewy shell -- but not so chewy that you have trouble biting through.
  • Size is roughtly regulation donut size, but without a hole in the middle. Slightly bigger than a tennis ball, smaller than a baseball.
  • There is a topping on top which, to be honest, isn't A+ presentation quality, but OK and good enough to identify what you bought. About doughnut-quality toppings.
  • $3.00 for chocolate-filling puffs, $3.50 for the non-chcolate filling ones.
    • 10% off if you get a dozen.
    • Puff + coffee deals available in-store.
  • The shell doesn't change much over time, so it will probably survive unscathed for hours, unlike donuts that might be dryer or crunchy puffs that might get chewy through air exposure or gooey through slowly absorbing moisture from the creams.
    • This said, there's no telling how long the puff you are looking at has been in the counter.
  • A good amount of filling inside.
  • Your first bite will probably be safe. Thereafter, each bite will probably force the cream to come spilling out.
    • You can mitigate this by licking out some of the cream after your first bite.
    • You can be super-careful by tearing pieces off your puff instead of biting.
    • Grab a LOT of napkins if buy this to go. There are a lot of napkins available at each table in-store.
I tried the Chocolate Oreo Crunch and Matcha Nippon, and both were okay. Flavours not particularly strong on the Matcha Nippon. Overall, I feel the flavours could be more striking for an overall tastier product.

At $3.00 to $3.50 they are pricing themselves competitively with Cartems Donuterie and ManCakes, which is basically what the market will bear. Where Chewy Junior distinguishes itself is in the sheer amount of cream they give you.
  • It's a tasty product, but for $3 go for Cartems instead.
  • If you are willing to spend for a "wow" cream puff, go to Beta5.
  • If you just want something other than a doughnut or a cupcake, then definitely give Chewy Junior a try: If you are willing to sit down and eat it, Chewy Junior does have a decent product that's different and messy-chewy-fun compared to donuts and cupcakes.

Monday, April 27, 2015

SushiVille definitely worth trying

Sushiville on Urbanspoon At the time of writing this post, SushiVille has what seems like really polar reviews on Urbanspoon and Yelp: People either love it or hate it.
Because of that, I was really curious to see what was going on. And having gone on a Monday night and watched them really busy at 7 PM and after, it is clear that there's something good about it despite low ratings. (So take social medial ratings with a grain of salt and read carefully!)

It is a smallish place with fairly tight table spacing, but actual table space allotted to each person is quite good. There is even "outdoor" bar style seating, though their being on Commercial Drive means I really don't recommend it till later in the evening when the wildlife passing by will be infrequent and hopefully nothing unsavoury.

We tried a bunch of sushi mostly, and it falls into two main categories: Boring and Interesting.
It's easy to find the cheap and boring stuff. It's pretty much everything that isn't a "Special Roll". They are normally the regulation size makizushi but for +$2 you can super-size it into a fat (about 6 cm diameter) futomaki. That's slightly more than 2x the amount of sushi for slightly less than 2x the price.
The Interesting stuff may not be for everyone. They do have what appears to be a signature excess in sauce on some of their special rolls, and obviously you may definitely want to hold off on using wasabi or soy sauce on those. The sheer amount of sauce may push the definition of "sushi" for some people, but just suspend your expectations and let tastiness be your guide.
Also interesting is the presentation, which typically has one of two things:
  • Dry ice spilling fog.
  • A non-edible cheesy-adorable ceramic statuette, like a bear or something. Typically nothing really related to anything but curious to see on the plate.
There is definitely an attempt to jazz up the presentation above and beyond plating. They can't really do very much with the boring non-special sushi rolls, and the Special Rolls already have colourful plating thanks in part to the sauce. Dry ice and ceramic pieces are... something else. That's either quaint or wow (like the dry ice when you see it the first time) or just kinda weird.

Here's some of what we ate:

Aburi Salmon Oshi Sushi ($10.95)
  • This is the box-pressed and flamed-on-top sushi that places like Miku and Bistro Sakana specialize in.
  • Taste was only okay, in part because the rice base had only a bit of mushroom in it that had its flavour dominated by the sauce on top. Even the normally distinct salmon flavour was buried by the sauce.
Beef Teriyaki Roll ($3.95 regular, $5.95 giant)
  • Boring. Exactly what it says: Rice + seaweed wrapped around a wad of shredded beef.
  • So bland you will actually want to use some condiment on it -- which I always consider a sign of a failed sushi composition.
    • Maybe teriyaki sauce?
  • Bonus points for being cheap and filling for the price -- but it's soooo boring!
Crunchy Shrimp Roll ($8.50)
  • This was crunchy? (Nope)
Pizza Roll ($9.50)
  • On our bill it showed up as "Italian Roll".
  • Supposed to have assorted pizza stuff on top, but... nope, not that I saw or taste.
  • Virtually swimming in sauce that didn't look like pizza sauce (probably thankfully not).
  • Looked and sounded interesting in the menu, but in the end, not so much and not super tasty either.
Rainbow Roll ($7.75)
  • The main attraction here is the "rainbow" of colours. Each piece of sushi has a slightly different topping, ranging from different types of fish to prawn to avocado.
  • Kind of neat to see, but not that interesting or particularly tasty in the end.
Rocky Mountain Roll ($8.50? -- Or $10.95 as part of a combo order including nigiri and sashimi)
  • Sushi swimming in sauce, and topped with a crunchy ball of something.
  • Interesting, fun to eat because of the crunchy ball, but... not that tasty.
Final analysis: Mediocre sushi, but with bonus points for price (for their "normal rolls") and interestingness (in plating and their Special Rolls).
If you want interesting rolls that taste better (but which are a few dollars more per roll), try SushiHolic. For very cheap or interesting-at-a-budget-price, then SushiVille is definitely worth a try.
Unless you are going for cheap-and-filling, there is really no point in ordering "normal" sushi here. Buy only the special rolls. And skip the aburi style stuff -- get that at a restaurant that specializes in that style of sushi.

Our party of six had eight orders of stuff. Bill came to $76.60 before tax, $80.43 after tax, about $15 per person after tip. Cheap eats with some interesting rolls in the order.

Staff are friendly but English is limited. Also, at the height of their busy-ness, expect some slowdown in overall service.



Friday, April 24, 2015

Starbucks Sausage and Cheddar Sandwich

Starbucks on Urbanspoon Dropped in today and found the usual friendly staff here. Sometimes Starbucks locations seem to have new staff all the time, but there are familiar faces here and I've been going maybe once a month for over a year.

Watch out for the 8 AM coffee line-up that often goes out the door. Come maybe 10 minutes earlier to escape that madness that can continue past 8:30 AM. If you are looking for a place to sit, don't let that line-up scare you off because most people are getting their coffees to go.

Today I had a coupon to try their sandwiches ($4 for sandwich plus Grande coffee), which I wouldn't have normally done. On a whim, I asked for their "least ordered" sandwich, and they were honestly at a loss about what to suggests since apparently everything gets ordered. In the end, I was suggested the Sausage and Cheddar.

Sausage and Cheddar savory breakfast sandwich. Southern-style sausage patty and egg topped with melted aged Cheddar cheese on a perfectly toasted English muffin.

  • There is nothing wrong with the individual components of this item except the muffin itself: It was limp.
    • It wasn't in the paper bag for long enough that steam should have softened it IF it had been toasted.
    • At the same time it didn't cool quickly enough to make me suspect it had been microwaved.
  • I should have watched them prep it instead of fooling around with my coffee. However, bottom line is it doesn't feel as fresh as it could be. You can probably get a more decent breakfast item elsewhere.
  • Without the coupon, the price (including a Grande coffee) would have been over $6 after tax.
Either pass on the breakfast sandwiches or try something other than sausage and cheddar.

Peckinpah the Paleo/Atkins choice

Peckinpah on Urbanspoon Where do Atkins / Paleo meat-eaters go for straight-meat without sugar carbs from tasty sauce? Well, there's Peckinpah.

To be honest I'm still not a fan of Peckinpah's particular BBQ style, but pounds for price they are still good, and when my no-carb friend wanted meat-meat-meat and we were both still stinging from Wildebeest, Peckinpah just naturally seemed to suggest itself.
OK, not really -- the front runners for me were Hog Shack (but Burnt Ends seemed to have fallen off the menu and they didn't respond to my e-mail about it), Memphis Blues (same problem as Hog Shack -- sweet BBQ sauces all over the meat), then Peckinpah in third place.

The menu is different since the last time I was there. No more sausage in The Divorce, for example. And no looks-like-swamp-weed Southern Greens as a choice of sides anymore.

The Divorce ($59.95, serves 3-6) One half serving of Pulled Pork, Pork Side Ribs (3), Beef Brisket, Chopped Beef, and Chicken Wings (3?), plus four sides and two pieces of cornbread.
  • The amount of meat looks sort of disappointing and geared toward sharing with 3 people. No way this serves 6 a satisfactory amount of meat.
  • If you choose the "correct" sides (read: heavy on carbs), you can get a medium-to-light meat but filling meal.
  • Still not really sold on this style of BBQ, especially as some of the items (like the chicken and brisket) were dry and on the tough side. Ribs and pulled stuff were fine though.
    •  Definitely use their vinegar sauce to try to soften any tougher cuts.
  • Honestly my favourite part of this was the "muffin" of cornbread.
    • Slight jalapeño (?) bite to it jazzes this up and saves it from the same monotony / heaviness as hush puppies.
Side: Brunswick Stew - Traditional North Carolina stew using our smoked meats (brisket, pulled pork, and smoked chicken) with kernal corn and lima beans in a house-made chicken & tomato stock.
  • Despite being called a "stew" it looked like assorted meat in soup.
  • If you are not careful and just scoop out the meat, you will end up with a savoury soup, which you could possibly use as a dip for hushpuppies or cornbread.
Side: Fries
  • Decent quantity and quality but nothing special here.
Side: Hush Puppies
  • Three ping-pong ball sized balls.
  • Sweet sauce provided looks viscous but is surprisingly runny. Watch out.
Side: Side Green Salad
  • It's a "real salad" with greens topped with a slab of tomato and a sprinkle of cranberries.
  • Everything else could end up giving you a tired, heavy feeling, so you might want to consider choosing this for at least one of your sides no matter what.
Baked Mac'n Cheese ($12.95) Made with applewood smoked cheddar morney.
  • Felt overpriced for the quantity (less than a $9 order of Mean Poutine).
  • Special cheese or not, it tasted only weakly of cheese flavour.
Deep Fried Oreos ($5.95 for four) Vanilla ice cream
  • Daily special (?). Not on the regular menu.
  • Waste of time. Deep frying the oreos left you with what looked like a soggy half (?) oreo. Also, the thick batter meant you are competing with that to actually taste your oreo. Basically, the process doesn't really enhance the oreo at all.
    • If you are desperate for a deep fried dessert, try Deep Fried Mars Bars instead.
  • Generous amount of chewy batter. Thankfully you have the rather decent ice cream to accompany it.
Reservations were not allowed on the Thursday we went, but I was told that we could probably do a walk-in around 7PM. The place felt quite quiet when we sat at around 7:40 PM, despite the Canucks / Flames game on TV (or maybe because it was game night). Service way better and friendlier than the last time I was there.

After The Divorce, Mac 'n Cheese, Deep Fried Oreos, and drinks for each of us, the bill after tax but before tip was still under $25 per person, and we were stuffed.
Bonus Points: Whatever you want to say about Peckinpah, they feed you well for your money in an increasingly gentrified area of upscalish eats at upscalish prices.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

2015-April Trip to San Francisco and Berkeley

In early 2015-April I flew down to Berkeley to visit an old friend of mine, and wandered about eating in San Francisco as well. This post lists the various journal entries related to the trip. Links will be filled in as I complete my posts. Links to reviews are in the journal entries.

My trip took place between the second and third weeks of the month, which is apparently not the optimal time -- the first week is better, as some San Francisco attractions are free in the first week.

Day 1 - Wednesday, April 8
Day 2 - Thursday-April-9
Day 3 - Friday-April-10
Day 4 - Saturday-April-11
Day 5 - Sunday-April-12
Day 6 - Monday-April-13
Day 7 - Tuesday-April-14
Day 8 - Wednesday-April-15

2015 San Francisco - Day 8 - Morning

(Link to all 2015-April San Francisco / Berkeley trip blog posts)

We are really spoiled to have YVR. SFO in comparison was annoying for early morning travellers, with very few services open and basically nothing open until 5 AM at the earliest when the airport wakes up -- not even the washrooms were open!
Only two restaurants started up a bit later in the morning, and maybe because they had the captive morning crowd, the one I went to (Andale) didn't really try that hard in courtesy or customer service.
Even the Duty Free Shopping isn't open till 8:30 AM, so if your flight departs before then, you'll miss out.

No Duty Free till 8:30 AM means I'll be airborne before I can buy that wine for my friend's contact in Vancouver. Drat.
Coffee from Andale was also way too strong. Dark roast? Anyway, it was too bitter and sour and I dumped the last half of it.

The flight back to Canada was as routine and uneventful as the flight to San Francisco one long week ago. No news is good news, especially given the number of crashes over the last year.

I'm home.

Too early to care at Andalé?

Andale Mexican Restaurant and Bar on Urbanspoon If you are at San Francisco Airport (SFO) in the early morning, there aren't that many breakfast options to choose from unless you run around before going through the security check in. And once you are through the security checkpoint, there's even less.

Andalé Mexican Restaurant is one of those restaurants.
I was at SFO For a before-8 AM international flight, and based on the menu pictures, I gave them a go for breakfast.
Mistake. But beggars can't be choosers.

Morning really is only "breakfast menu only", which is a rather small menu. The ad copy for their Huevos Rancheros (Two soft corn tortillas topped with two eggs over-easy, refried house Mayocoba beans, queso fresco, and serrano salsa ranchera. Served with potatoes and fresh fruit on the side.) looks colourful and awesome and a nice full plate.
What you get is a sad wannabe of that ad copy.
It is also $10.75. Which, to be honest, is not uncommon for a similarly sad-looking breakfast in Berkeley or San Francisco. There are good to superb and cheaper alternatives in San Francisco and Berkeley for early mornings (like Tartine), but trapped post-security in an airport, you can't access them.
Taste is OK. It just looks like they didn't really care. Is it that early in the morning for you? Well, it is for me too and I slept overnight in the airport for crissakes. Work another shift if you can't handle the hours instead of giving your restaurant chain a bad name.

Coffee is $2.50.
And they forgot my coffee. I had to ask if it were self-serve because it never came.
No, it's not self-serve. And the person behind the counter even looked disgruntled that he had to give me my coffee (which I had already paid for). I was handed a coffee and the recycled paper sleeve to put on the cup myself. Thanks.

2015 San Francisco - Day 7 - Evening

(Link to all 2015-April San Francisco / Berkeley trip blog posts)

Oblivious to how indirect it was to actually walk to the Berkeley Marina (no, I couldn't just follow the University Avenue traffic across the bridge), I blithely said I'd try to make it there by 5 PM. I only got as far as McLaughlin Eastshore State Park before I admitted I was lost. There was definitely no sign of any "junkyard park" in sight. Thank god for my cellphone because I could call my friend to rescue her hapless Vancouver visitor.

I actually don't own a cellphone and haven't for years. My friends all know the reason I've always stuck to: When I did own one, all people ever called me for was to tell me they were going to be late.
And that honestly really bugged me because typically they'd call when they were already 15 minutes late to apologize and ask me to wait another 15-30 minutes more. If I say no, suddenly I'm the jerk even though they are late.
So if I don't have a cellphone, then they can't reach me and everyone can decide how to protect their time. I can just leave. They can give up and not show up, and leave me a message later.

But given the number of times a cellphone has been handy (plus they now take really decent pictures), I'm honestly thinking of getting a Samsung Galaxy Note Edge, if I can somehow avoid paying for data. And figure out how to haul it around without getting it stolen.

The parents and kids were apparently done with "junkyard park" as they were all in the playground or on the muddy low-tide beach. My friend informed me that the park had a zipline for kids, and assorted structures that they could add to or decorate if they located some "dangerous junk" for trade -- such as loose nails or other things.
I quickly handed over her mug and my spare oranges lest I forgot, then found myself a shady tree. After placing my palm on the trunk and silently thanking it for being there and providing shade and allowing me to sit under, I sat quietly to rest after a long day and try to meditate a bit.

After an hour or so, we rounded up my friend's kids, packed up, and left. She dropped me off at Cafe Leila. I wanted to end my day with the spicy chai again (cold this time) and I offered to get one for her and the kids, but she declined. She said she'd call me later in the evening.

I got my chai and maybe it was because of the hot day but I finished it mere minutes after leaving the Cafe, and well before I got back to the Inn.

Bathed, packed, set my alarm, went to sleep.

Basically my trip was over.

In the evening my friend called me and offered to take me to the airport in lieu of me taking the BART. I didn't want to impose, but she gently insisted and I accepted.
Throughout this trip I really felt humbled by her attentiveness, generosity, care, and hospitality. Whenever she was in Vancouver, she'd typically just have the one day with me as she had many friends to visit, and we'd walk around shopping and eating. All that seemed so trivial now compared to how much time she'd spent with me, that I was sad I hadn't done more -- hadn't thought to do more -- for her.
And now there was no telling when she'd ever get the chance to visit Vancouver again.

I woke at around 10 PM and got ready to leave my Inn room for the very last time. Left a tip for the cleaners. Throughout my trip I left the "do not disturb" sign on the doorknob because I didn't need any change of linens -- which would have cost water to wash, water which was precious at time time in all of California.
I went to the Office to chat with the staffer on shift -- Pedro -- and say my last goodbyes. We shook hands, then I got into my friend's car and we were off.

It was quite a drive from the Golden Bear Inn to SFO airport, across the bridges spanning Treasure Island. The BART would have gone underground across that span, and I would have completely missed the brightly, beautifully, lit suspension bridge. Was this why my dear friend had been so insistent all along?
It was a magnificent end to my time in Berkeley, and my last night in San Francisco.

Dropped off the rented TripTel phone, and once more I was off the grid. Air Canada check-in wouldn't be open till 5 AM. There was an interesting Joseff of Hollywood "Jeweler to the Stars" display nearby but the cleaners were doing their rounds and I deferred that for morning. Instead, I, like several others, found whatever benches we could and tucked in for the night. I went with the padded food court benches. Took off my shoes, pulled my bag close, and power napped.
Too anxious to really sleep, lest my shoes were stolen or my baggage tampered with.

2015 San Francisco - Day 7 - Afternoon

(Link to all 2015-April San Francisco / Berkeley trip blog posts)

Last day in San Francisco, and my last day of eating. I had already checked off Tartine and all that was left was Scoma's and that odd Mongolian place.

Scoma's proved disappointing, though in part because expectations had been set so high. When I went to Urbanspoon in preparation for writing my review of Scoma's, I couldn't help noticing some reviews from apparently long-time diners: David (2014-Nov-22 "I like changes, but..."), Richardhyppa (2015-Mar-6 "Used to be our favorite"), and Steven Teachout (2015-Jan-19 "A part of San Francisco restaurant lore has vanished").
Which reminds me that sometimes we go to a restaurant and have a great time (or a lousy one), and we carry that experience with us as if restaurants will never change.
But like people -- because they are run by people -- restaurants do change.
So when you read reviews or get recommendations, be aware and maybe dump everything that is over a year old because it's very possibly not reliable anymore.
Is change fair?
Scoma's sounds like they had a good formula and stuck to it for a long time. And when that familiarity was lost, so was the comfort that it provided. Is it fair for David to complain about broccoli and cauliflower being replaced by seasonal vegetables? That his beloved Shellfish Saute Sec had also been tampered with?
People obviously won't always stay the same, nor will their changes always be to your liking. But when they change what you liked about them -- and especially what was good about them -- then what? Simply agree to disagree?

Got to Let's Jam at 1:30 PM, and it was true! Mongolian food for the asking. Sadly they did not have banshtai tsai, which they described as dumplings in milk soup and which was far and away the most interesting thing that the Mongolian girl I met after Kirtan on Saturday wrote down in my diary. Everything else was sort of boring-sounding, including borsh, which was basically like Russian borscht. I ended up with a light lunch of ice chai tea latte with soy milk and a half order of three banshtai shol (deep-fried dumplings) for a mere $10.

My Berkeley friend called me while I was at Let's Jam to check in on me and sort out my final plans. I had borrowed a mug from her (to avoid wasting the individually-wrapped paper cups at the Golden Bear Inn) and too many mandarin oranges left over, so I wanted to return those. She was spending the afternoon with other parents, babysitting at "junkyard park" (Adventure Playground) and the playground at the Berkeley Marina. No problem, I'd meet her there, but if I didn't show up by 5 PM when she had to leave, then could she meet me at the Inn?

Secret Mongolian menu at Let's Jam

. Let's Jam looks like a hole-in-the-wall cafe with usual cafe fare like sandwiches and pastries and cakes, but it's run by friendly Mongolians (some of whom can speak Korean, apparently) and they are preparing a Mongolian menu. During my early 2015-April trip the menu wasn't official yet, but they have pictures behind the register and you just have to go up to the counter and ask for Mongolian food.
I ordered an Ice Chai Tea Latte with soy milk (part of their regular menu) and a half order of dumplings. It was just $10.

A half order of their deep fried dumplings (banshtai shol, I think) is three large, thin dumplings with a thin layer of beef inside. Kind of like flat empanadas. Tastes sort of like Chinese food, so it might not be as interesting to Asians. About 1/3 meat, 2/3 fried-to-golden-brown chewy dough.
Comes with token salad like a slay with vinegar but no mayo. Use of bottled sauces optional. If I remember correctly, I was offered sriracha chili sauce and Bragg Liquid Aminos Soy Sauce to which they had added cloves of garlic.

Cheap food (especially when the $10 includes a drink) good for a light meal.

My Ice Chai Tea Latte came in a big plastic mug (the sort they use for bubble tea) which they had filled absolutely to the brim (bonus points!) such that the lid couldn't be put on. Not too much ice, either. Nice!

Chowder versus Bisque at Scoma's

Scoma's on Urbanspoon
During my 2015-April trip to San Francisco, Scoma's had been recommended to me twice: Once by a lady who worked at Swiss Louis on Pier 39, and a second time by the guide from Dylan's Tours. Surely it had to be good.
It even has it's own road in Fisherman's Wharf, for chrissakes (Al Scoma Way). Surely it's a San Francisco fixture, a piece of its history.
All this puts Scoma's in that dangerous territory of setting high expectations all to easy to disappoint.

I got there when their doors were open but before their official start of business. The maître d' was a younger fellow, friendly, personable and professional. He even remembered my name on my way out, and little details such as my leaving for the airport that same night.
Sadly I ended up with a pushy waiter who seemed insistent on upselling me their Shellfish Sauté Sec even though I told him I was just here for a light meal as I had elsewhere to eat on my very last day in San Francisco. I am going to assume that not all the waiters at Scoma's are similarly pushy, and that when it's not so busy that every seat is precious, they will respect a diner's wishes about just how much they want to eat.

The procedure at Scoma's is apparently to first take down your name and seat you at the bar until you are called, one party at a time, into the dining room where you are seated. Since I went during lunch and pretty much right when they opened, this seemed a strange practice as seating was obviously already available.
Something similar had happened at Crustacean, and I wonder if this were a way to sell drinks at the bar first. After all, if you are sitting at the bar, you might be more likely to order a drink while waiting (?).

I asked (as I invariably do with foolish hope) if they had fresh-squeezed juice. Nope, but "fresh squeezed" in a bottle was available. I asked if the lemonade might be made from real lemons. Nope, from concentrate. Even though afterwards the bartender stood there squeezing the life out of maybe a dozen lemons. Oh, the irony of how bars work.

Grapefruit Juice ($4)
  • Tall glass not filled to the brim. Somewhat chilled but no ice.
  • When I asked for ice he said he forgot to ask if I wanted ice. Hmm.
  • Anyway, strong and not too much ice.
Scoma's Famous Clam Chowder ($9 cup, $11 bowl)
  • Soupy like Boudin's and about the same in tastiness, except maybe with a light hint of butter (?) and costing about $3 more if you get the bowl -- on top of not having any sourdough to go with it, although dining at Scoma's sees complimentary bread sent to your table once you have ordered.
Lobster Bisque ($10 cup, $12 bowl) gluten-free
  • Rich and salty-sweet, on the too-salty side.
  • Lightly hot-spicy.
  • Not very lobster-y, but also without too much of the possibly off-putting lobster-guts flavour.
While you are in line waiting for the maître d', look to your right for souvenirs such as books of Scoma's matchsticks (you hardly see these things anymore) and a square info card that, among other things, talks about the Vegimobile.

2015 San Francisco - Day 7 - Morning

(Link to all 2015-April San Francisco / Berkeley trip blog posts)

5:59 AM -- one minute before the 6:00 AM alarm on my cellphone -- I woke up from a bad dream of things left undone. It's an anxiety dream I've had in various forms before. Years ago, it used to be suddenly remembering I had signed up for a course of some kind shortly before the end of the semester. Ludicrous, I know, but the feeling of panic was real.

Shortly after I woke, I heard someone going around the Inn doors, singing loudly and pounding on doors. He circled around again, this time talking loudly (to himself?). I called the police then got busy getting changed and ready to head out. The police did come quite promptly (a half hour later?), found the person, and detained them at the gas station across the street.
Speaking to another witness staying at the inn, I learned that Oakland wasn't so lucky to have that sort of police presence. Apparently, if you report a break-in, they tell you to record what's missing, clean up, and get ready to give a statement when the police finally come around a few days later.

Second incident at the Inn. Now my mind was definitely made up not to leave in the morning, but to overnight at the airport. That meant an even shorter day today.

Last day.

First up, Tartine. Went downtown and hiked to it, getting there at 8 AM. Contrary to a lot of sleepy-till-11:30 breakfast places, Tartine was already busy, though much of the line-up appeared to be take-out orders. There were still lots of seats, though some at increasingly popular "communal tables". As the Dylan's Tours guide mentioned, it was doable in the morning.

Next, kill some time till I was ready to eat again. I walked the Fillmore Street Shops and the Union Street Shops marked on the San Francisco Visitor Map before going down to Fisherman's Wharf, with the intention of looking for Scoma's.
This time, my route took me more downhill than up, and happily it was down some of the steeper roads. So steep that sections had long flights of short steps. Too short to really be useful for going down. In fact, I felt they hampered me and I continued to proceed carefully down the regular pavement for the most part.
The many days of walking were finally catching up to me and at the Wharf I dropped by the sweet oasis that was the seaward side of the restored 1939 Bathhouse. Took off my heavy shoes, let my feet ground on the cool tiles of that shaded place, and had some mandarin oranges while staring across the water at Alcatraz.

Hit and miss at Tartine

Tartine Bakery on Urbanspoon
Contrary to a lot of sleepy-till-11:30 breakfast places, Tartine (French for "slice of bread"?) was already by 8 AM when I got there, though much of the line-up appeared to be take-out orders. (On Tuesdays to Fridays they are open as early as 7.30 AM if you want to try to early-bird it.) There were still lots of seats, though some at increasingly popular "communal tables".

One of the first things that jumped out at me was signs that read, "Kindly bus your dishes behind the register". I hope this trend doesn't catch on. On the other hand, it could mean diner dollars saved from having to tip.
The next thing: They serve wine and beer!
Finally: Still no signs on the building. I guess everyone just knows where they are. Is this some sort of hipster move?

My first time here during my 2015-April trip to San Francisco, and possibly my last time here ever since it was on my very last day of my trip. So I asked the person at the counter what made this place famous. He suggested the breakfast bun, then the frangipane double-baked croissant. With the croissant, he emphasized that it would be a crusty non-fluffy croissant because they were baked twice. The breakfast buns were like muffins with oversized tops making them look like giant mushrooms. The croissants were like fat diamonds about 50% larger than a more "normal" looking one; maybe two and a half of them would equal a loaf of bread in volume. His personal favourite, however, were the lemon cream tarts.

I went for a lemon tart and a house coffee. Afterwards, inspired by the very nice lemon tart, I gave the frangipane croissant a try. Mistake.

House Coffee ($1.75)
  • Self-serve. I don't know if it was also unlimited like Bette's Oceanview Diner and I didn't try going for a refill.
4" Lemon Cream Tart ($6.75; $40 for 9" tart) sweet pastry shell filled with rich lemon cream, topped with unsweetened cream
  • The cream has a nice, sharp lemony flavour without being too much on the sour side.
  • Cream is also firm enough to not ooze, but not so firm to be custard-like. This item is therefore surprisingly easy to share as you can carve small bites out of it without making a huge mess.
  • Beyond just being nice lemon tart in a shell, there was something about this tart that made it oh-so-good. Could be the fact that there's such a thin crust and you are simply enjoying a rich, delicious, lemon cream?
Frangipane Croissant ($5) almond cream
  • The "almond cream" mentioned is the "frangipane" part of this item.
  • If you open it up, it looks like a croissant was cut open, frangipane slathered inside, and the item then inexplicably baked again. I say "inexplicably" because I feel they totally ruined it by doing so.
  • In double-baking this, the top is so browned as to be nearly black in many places, and it is as crispy, crumbly, and bitter as you might expect. I actually recommend peeling off the very uppermost layers and just discarding it before eating the rest of the croissant. No idea why people rave about this.
  • Maybe it was fluke in my croissant, but the almond cream inside had been absorbed by the croissant, with the next result that this item is really on the too-dry side considering how much croissant there is, plus it being double-baked into dryness. You do see abundant evidence of almonds though.
  • Make sure you have some kind of drink on hand. You're gonna need it.
If you are fine with a light breakfast, Tartine offers a very nice well-under-$10 niche breakfast alternative to boring breakfast joints with mains of $8-$10. You can even put together a sweet lunch with two of their heavier pastries and have your bill come in comparably with going to lunch anywhere else, assuming you are not on the Atkin's Diet of no-sugar no-carbs.

2015 San Francisco - Day 6 - Evening

(Link to all 2015-April San Francisco / Berkeley trip blog posts)

After Walnut Creek and the playground in nearby Concord (?), my friend helpfully dropped me off on Shattuck Avenue. I invited her and the children to dine with me at Angeline's Louisiana Kitchen, but I think the kids were pooped and she had to take them home.

We also finalized plans for duty free shopping: I offered to get her friend in Vancouver a bottle of Napa Red, "not too cheap, not too expensive". At first she had wanted to get them even more cheaply from Trader Joe's, but I only had carry-on and they were bound to be confiscated by airport security. Drat.

My second last day and over half of it was gone. Dinner at Angeline's Louisiana Kitchen was yet another Urbanspoon top-rated place that turned out to be just okay. Next time I go on a trip, I think I will stop looking to social media for recommendations since that tends to set expectations higher than warranted.
This is ironic because I contribute to those very sites.

Feeling quite stuffed after dinner -- for the first time in my entire trip to San Francisco and Berkeley -- I had a leisurely walk back to the Inn. Still grateful for the lovely weather and not having to tote an umbrella. I detoured to Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park but otherwise the neighborhood held no more interest for me.
I guess I was just about done with Berkeley, except for the eating. Same with San Francisco.

At the Inn, I stopped by to chat with Pedro, who was practising on his guitar -- he had been teaching himself how to play since 2014-June. He played a couple of tunes for me and we chatted for a bit.

In my room at the Inn, I started packing up my things, sorting out my receipts, throwing out whatever I could. I also noticed I was pinkish and sunburnt! I had worn long sleeves when I went to Tilden and Walnut Creek, as a guard against poison oak and other annoying plant life. But the weather had generally been so cool that I didn't think to protect myself against the sun. Duh. My head especially. (Come Wednesday evening I'd start itching, especially my arms.)

My time in San Francisco was almost done. I planned a walking-about-eating route for tomorrow in San Francisco, then slept early to try to get an early start on Tuesday.

Catfish at Angeline's Louisiana Kitchen

Angeline's Louisiana Kitchen on Urbanspoon There aren't many New Orleans restaurants to choose from in Vancouver, so it was doubly fortunate that during my trip to Berkeley in 2015-April I got to visit one, and it was rated highly on Urbanspoon and Yelp.

In the still sunny-bright evening, the curtains were drawn, leaving the restaurant dim and cool on the inside. For a place that was pretty busy, table spacing was good -- they aren't sardine-ing you in here. There were two-person tables left, but to help them with the almost constant stream of people coming in the door, I opted for the bar, which proved to have a wide table comfortable for having dinner.
Normally they weren't quite so busy in the early evening, but it was Monday, and on Mondays and Tuesdays they have half off all red wines.

According to the bartender, their top three items were Buttermilk Fried Chicken, Fried Catfish, and Jambalaya. I'd only had catfish twice (the second time at Ouisi Bistro in Vancouver and it was undercooked), so third time's a charm, right?

Fried Catfish ($13.99) potato salad, tartar sauce & hushpuppies with honey butter (cocktail sauce available)
  • This turned out to be more like fish and chips, except with fish strips instead of fish fillets. By strips I mean long strips, maybe 1.5 cm thick at most, but generally about 1 cm thick.
  • If you take it apart and remove the crust, you can properly taste the catfish, which is actually nicely done: Moist and sweet meat.
  • Go very easy on the sauce because it's easy to overwhelm the other flavours.
  • The problem with the plating here is you basically taste either the crust, or the sauce if you use it. To really taste any of the catfish, you need to take off the crust, and for thin strips like this, it is not worth the effort.
    • Maybe worst of all is the "wasted" catfish. I think they could easily have done a really nice fillet, considering they fried these just right without overcooking the fish.
  • Potato salad had quite a bit of onion in it.
  • Six hushpuppies the size of ping-pong balls or slightly bigger. These are primarily what fill you up.
    • Get started right away if you want to butter them because they will probably come piping hot, which is great for melting butter. Just tear or cut them open and smear on the butter.
    • This is the primary make-you-full item on your plate, but sadly no substitutions allowed if you want to skip it. At least they feed you really well for your money.
Swamp Water ($3.99)
  • This is the non-alcoholic lemonade + ice tea version.
  • Tall, big glass, maybe 1/3rd ice. Straw optional as they hand it to you still in the paper wrapper. Don't waste it if you don't need it and just give it back.
As with any restaurant caught at a really busy time, kitchen was slower, so if you go on red wine nights, expect a longer wait.

2015 San Francisco - Day 6 - Afternoon

(Link to all 2015-April San Francisco / Berkeley trip blog posts)

Got back to the Inn, and duh, realized I didn't get anything for lunch for the hike. So we left a half hour earlier than anticipated to go to the El Cerrito Trader Joe's (this time with my own cloth bag!) and picked up a pack of Laughing Cow Swiss Garlic & Herb Cheese (a bit weak on the garlic-ness for my taste; $2.99) and Force Primeval Bagel Bars (sure didn't feel like there were the percentage of nuts and fruit advertised on the bag, but nevertheless heavy and filling bread for just $3.29).
My friend got oranges, apples, and two bags of Roasted Plantain Chips, which are apparently a hit with kiddies.

First time I met her kids (day 1 for the Off The Grid food cart festival) they were kind of all over me since I was the novelty. They were really grabby -- and sometimes nibbling! Thank fully by now they'd mellowed out more, and I got to observe them and other kids as they interacted with Lime Ridge Open Space in the City of Walnut Creek. We were in the supposedly no-dogs-allowed wildlife preserve area, but there were nevertheless dog walkers.
My friend had previously mentioned that more kids = less work for parents, strangely enough, and today that proved true. The kids played with their friends and as long as they weren't doing something stupidly life threatening, they could scramble around and do their thing while the parents chatted.

The young children (probably all under 10) were also surprisingly destructive. Their "curiousity" led them to destroy things, and fortunately in this particular habitat, they could do so "safely". No one is going to mind if a chunk of limestone got chipped a bit smaller, for example.
But they also disrupted animal habitats, like pushing sand or dropping rocks into burrows; or tearing off the bark from a fallen log, causing a yellow lizard (?) to frantically dash away for its life. I didn't see where it went but I hope the kids didn't crush it beneath grass. The poor fellow probably needed the cool shade to keep moist during the hot day.
Yes, they are kids and they are just curious. But they seemed utterly unaware their curiosity had a sometimes terrible cost. That log was someone's home, a someone who almost got trampled to death.
If you can't be respectful in someone's home, you don't deserve to be there.

Later we went to a proper playground, and though nature was obviously paved over to make room for it, at least nothing they did there could really hurt anyone other than themselves.

2015 San Francisco - Day 6 - Morning

(Link to all 2015-April San Francisco / Berkeley trip blog posts)

Counting down to the last days of my trip now. Just two days left since I fly out so early on Wednesday morning that I really don't have time for anything in San Francisco that morning except the airport.

It was time to get focussed and I started a checklist. Got up early today and headed to CrepeVine at Cedar and Shattuck, recommended by my Berkeley friend as having interesting eats. She did well with Cafe Leila's spicy chai recommendation, and CrepeVine was also another winner in terms of curious cuisine. But first, there was an odd incident at the Golden Bear Inn.

A suspicious African American person was at the room next to mine. He stood to one side, knocked on the door, and called out, "Barbara"? He didn't even move along or explain himself when he saw me, and that made me linger in the area, keeping him in sight but making my way toward the office to look for the manager. In his hand there was something that looked wooden and which he held like a knife. A wooden knife?

Only when the manager came out to patrol the area and check him out did he finally move away from the door, linger around, get on his bicycle, then pedal away.

I was starting to have second thoughts about walking to the BART at 4 AM on Wednesday.

After lunch at CrepeVine I headed back to the inn to be picked up for hiking with my Berkeley friend and her other homeschool mom friends. No idea where we were going, but it was more time I could spend with my friend and in any case hiking was an entirely different activity during my trip so it was nice to fit it in.
I dropped by Trader Joe's for more mandarin oranges and on a whim, bought the Golden Bear Inn staff a Blueberry Peach Galette. Totally forgot to bring my own bag (Trader Joes charges you for their brown paper bags, but that isn't so different from Superstore in Vancouver, for example).

Curious crepes at CrepeVine

Crepevine on Urbanspoon CrepeVine was another "curious cuisine" recommendation by my local friend while I was in Berkeley in 2015-April.

It's a fairly large place but pretty much dead quiet in the morning. According to the server, they are typically not busy till the 11:30 AM+ lunch rush, except Fri-Sun mornings.

Gluten free option. Tons of crepe and sandwich options, but it looked like the same core ingredients organized in different combinations. They also have salads and pasta.
So many choices, so little time, and so little space in my stomach for food. Alas. Nobody lives forever so I went with a dessert crepe for breakfast, plus chai.

Chai ($3.25)
  • Sort of weak but ok.
Santorini Sweet Crepe ($7.95) walnuts, pistachios, brown sugar, coconut, cinnamon, and mascarpone; served with whipped cream and vanilla ice cream
  • Nothing weird about the crepe despite having asked for the gluten free option.
  • Honestly I didn't think they used mascarpone here (isn't it supposed to be creamy looking?), but some other cheese. But I didn't have enough cheese credentials to go head-to-head with them on it and let it slide.
  • Pretty good, but nut flavours didn't really come through so well.
  • Price is also pretty good at basically $8 for a light breakfast.
Service seemed good (but of course I was I think just the only other table that morning, so there would have been no excuse for lousy service). The server was quick to acknowledge people walking in, and to check on them during their meal.



2015 San Francisco - Day 5 - Evening

(Link to all 2015-April San Francisco / Berkeley trip blog posts)

The two How Do We Fix Our Broken World presentations were today. One at 2 PM, which I missed because of Dylan's Famous Tour; one one at 7 PM, which I was going to miss having traded it to take my "host family" -- my Berkeley friend, her husband, and their two kids -- to dinner on the one night everyone could conveniently make it.
Some part of me really regretted it since I was unlikely to ever see what it was all about. Highlights of the exhibits were said to include "The gathering of the Forces of Light -- UFOs"! But maybe it'll eventually make its way to Canada, so I feel I made the right choice. But boy, was Crustacean the wrong restaurant.
Still, it was done and I could at least report back that I tried the recommendations given to me. And honestly, if I am given a recommendation, I do try to give them a go. Otherwise, I just wouldn't bother asking for recommendations. Speaking of which, CynEats has a slightly outdated guide (2014-Oct) on best places to eat in San Francisco. She appended the following by e-mail (which, sadly, I could only check after I got back from my trip):
Mr. Holmes Bakehouse is MUST. They run out of things quickly and lines are long, so you have to go really early:
Tartine Bakery is also another famous spot for pastries. Come here for breakfast, then you can walk down the street to Dolores Park (Great view of SF)
For some BOMB sandwiches, visit Ikes Place. They are famous in SF and are also located near Dolores Park. (maybe you could go to Tartine bakery for Bfast, then head to the park, then Ikes place for lunch)
State Bird Provisions is MUST (if you're willing to wait in line), but it's totally worth it. The owners of State Bird just opened up The Progress (next door to it). You should definitely take this time to make a ressie in advance. Since they just opened, it's totally do-able. Or you can go early and grab a seat at the bar.
Little Skillet has the BEST fried chicken and waffles. I literally just came here this past weekend and was blown away.
After dinner, my Berkeley friends headed back, but there was still daylight left and I wanted to take in City Hall and the Civic Centre to have a more patient look at what we merely whizzed by during Dylan's Famous Tour.
I spent quite a bit of time looking at the magnificent buildings, the boulevards, the sculptures. I think most of all I was impressed by the sheer free space. In a tight metropolis like Vancouver, it's hard to imagine they can reserve as much in the middle of the city. But once upon a time, such sites were evidently crucial to nation. Something inspirational and awe-inspiring to be at its heart. You could walk into the square and immediately feel uplifted to stand up straighter for your country.

Hit and miss at Crustacean Restaurant

Crustacean Euro Asian Cuisine on Urbanspoon Crustacean was one of the restaurants recommended to me for my 2015-April trip to San Francisco by friends who used to live in San Francisco. I'm always up for interesting eats, so the mystique of their having a "Secret Kitchen" where family recipes are prepared away from the prying eyes of "outsider" staff intrigued me. That, plus people raving about their garlic noodles. And Crustacean sounded like such an old family restaurant that I didn't think it merely a marketing gimmick. Certainly the one staff person I chanced to run into on my way up the stairs confirmed the Secret Kitchen protocol did in fact exist.

First impressions of the place were good. The maître d' gave polished, professional service and was patient with noob questions. The restaurant is elevated over the street, giving you views of the city. The dining area is also tiered, so even if you are not sitting at a window, there's still the possibility of good views. The dim room of dark colours offered a nice retreat from the bright sun outside if you are dining early in the evening.

My reservation was for 5:30 PM and one of the first ones in the restaurant that Sunday evening. They are apparently supremely busy come sundown (the timing of which is therefore influenced by Daylight Savings Time adjustments). That, and if there is a convention in town.

The basic Roast Crab is one of the restaurant's original (and now Secret Kitchen) recipes; the Tamarind Crab and Drunken Crabs were added later. The "extra time" required for the crustacean recipes from the Secret Kitchen was estimated by the server to be just about 15 minutes more, though one should expect it to be even longer once the restaurant gets busy later in the evening starting around 7 PM.

As is my wont, I arrived early. The restaurant was basically empty. The protocol apparently was that I could wait seated at the bar, or I could wait in the lobby; either way, they would seat me once 2-3 persons had arrived. (Why?) Anyway, I complied, though eventually they did seat me alone. Of course during this time I did not idle, but perused the menu.

Once at the table, I started with a drink. They had non-alcoholic ginger beer. It was disaster (how can a restaurant mess up a bottled drink?). Once my friends arrived and our first appetizer orders showed up, they still hadn't redeemed themselves from a FAIL.

Ginger Beer ($6)
  • Tasted weak. The reason is probably because at least 2/3rds of my glass was ice cubes.
  • I paid $4 for ice and $2 for maybe a 1/3rd of a glass of ginger beer that didn't taste anywhere as good as the four-pack I bought from Trader Joe's that cost less than $6.
  • Crustacean is a "fancy restaurant" and a popular one. I get that. I've eaten at even more posh or pretentious restaurants in Vancouver. But this much ice is disgusting for $6. FAIL.
Shrimp Toast ($11.25 for three pieces)
  • Three slices of baguette, topped with pink, rubbery shrimp cake.
  • Tastes like shrimp -- I should hope so!
  • Tough, rubbery texture on the shrimp cake.
  • Nothing special to the taste, nothing novel in the presentation. I was curious to see how they could possibly justify charging someone $11.25 for toast and they failed miserably. Right out of the gate, Crustacean had two strikes against them.
Garlic Noodles ($10.95)
  • Fortunately an OK amount of noodles, and very garlicky as advertised.
  • Completely unadorned -- like serving us a bowl of rice to go with our food. Probably meant to be used just that way.
  • Not so interesting that people need to rave about it, but price for portion is fine. If you add that you are in a popular restaurant, then price comes in lower than expected.
Roast Crab ("quoted price", for us it was $48.95)
  • Looked like a baked crab sitting in a pool of oil sprinkled liberally with pepper.
    • I thought maybe the flavour here was in the oil (roasted with the crab?). I mixed some of the garlic noodles in that oil. Nope. Now my garlic noodles just tasted oily.
  • After cracking open the leathery shell, the crab meat tasted like crab.
  • I even licked the shell for any flavour that might be crusted on (e.g., in the matter you would definitely lollipop the shell of a Singapore Style Chili Crab). Nope, no flavour to be savoured here.
  • Total waste of time (and money). Just get a crab from the market and steam it yourself and use whatever condiments you like.
  • This is strike three. but Crustacean does have some saving graces, so read on!
[Buddha] Roll ($7.95)
  • One of the vegetarian choices on the menu. If you're vegetarian, first of all you're in the wrong place dining at a seafood restaurant. If you are still there, choose something else than this.
  • Definitely use the provided sauce as it's rather on the bland side without.
Skewer Beef ($10.95)
  • Finally something really decent tasting. If I remember correctly this was two skewers with wide but flat beef.
  • Slightly sweet seasoning, grilled very nicely to have some of that delicious grilled flavour.
  • Comes with token salad.
  • Price might feel steep at $10.95 but taste makes up for it.
Shrimp Fried Rice ($8)
  • Good Chinese-restaurant portion for money. As far as fried rice dishes go, taste is good.
  • Rice looks colourful with the many ingredients, but I counted exactly 5 shrimp (unless one of my friends was fast on the draw and had stolen a shrimp already).
    • Incidentally, there were five of us (three adults, two kids). Coincidence?
Halibut ($31.95)
  • Wow was this expensive. Felt possibly overpriced, but it was definitely tasty, so it's hard to complain.
  • If you are not looking closely, your initial impression might be that the slab of halibut is huge! But half the plate is mashed potato and almost all of it is hidden under tasty sauce with slices of mushroom.
  • Halibut appeared to have been done nicely - moist and tender, easily forked apart.
  • Incidentally, the mashed potato was really decent. And it had a good smooth and creamy texture.
Baked Alaska ($8.50) (picture from Yelp)
  • Didn't look like any Baked Alaska I was familiar with, but the components were there: Flamed meringue on top of ice cream.
  • Hard to go wrong with this dessert. Price is okay.
Chocolate Lava Cake ($8.50)
  • While I was secretly taking notes, I didn't see how this turned out when cut -- i.e., whether hot chocolate "lava" came oozing out. But it was definitely not overbaked into dryness on the inside, which can sometimes happen with lava cakes.
  • Deeply chocolatey and delicious like a fudge-style brownie. Of the desserts, my personal favourite choice. Price is good for what you get after giving bonus points for taste.
Crème brûlée ($8.50)
  • Standard issue wide and deep-dish crème brûlée, Nothing special here but nothing wrong either.
  • I didn't get to carefully inspect the caramelized top but didn't taste anything wrong or burnt with it either.
$172.75 for three adults and two under-age-10 kids. $195.38 after tax and 4% SF Employee Mandate. $220 after tip makes it $55 per person if you count our party as "four" adults.

Despite a really lousy start with the $6 for ice with a splash of ginger beer plus a couple of dish duds, Crustacean would still get a passing score because:
  • Prices for many items are actually good.
    • Low, in fact, considering that typically super-busy/super-popular restaurants start raising prices to trim out low-end diners and thereby reserve their seats for spendier clientele.
    • Your average underpaid peon can walk in here (go early to avoid the crowd!) and get a decent meal at a price comparable to a boring restaurant -- For $8 you can get a plate of fried rice bigger than just about any diner breakfast main charging $10.
    • A great way to get a filling meal at a reasonable price is to share rice or garlic noodles and a main with a friend -- i.e., treat Crustacean like any other family style / for sharing Chinese restaurant and go with several people.
  • Items are hit and miss, but there are good items on the menu.
    • Most things will probably come in between okay and good. Accept that there will be some duds. Therefore, do your research for the mains, especially when they are over $20. Ask friends who've personally eaten there for specific recommendations.
    • Do not just go with the hype and order Secret Kitchen stuff.
BEFORE the end of the meal -- BEFORE we had even finished dessert -- I got the bill. WTH?

Yeah, I know that we probably did give the impression we probably weren't going to order anything else as we were pretty full, but to get the bill even before we finished eating?
The reservation was for 5:30 PM and the bill printed at 6:30 PM. The restaurant probably wasn't even half full. Were they in such a rush to see us finished eating and out of there?
I had a similar experience at Bette's Oceanview Diner, but nowhere near as pre-emptive and aggressive. Sorry, points off here.

2015 San Francisco - Day 5 - Afternoon

(Link to all 2015-April San Francisco / Berkeley trip blog posts)

Our driver from Dylan's Tours mentioned the "Torta Cubana" from "That's It" at 23rd and Mission. I was curious to try it as the place had apparently been on television -- I'm always up for eats that might be interesting -- but time was the enemy now. Today was booked. Tomorrow was hiking with my Berkeley friend and her fellow homeschooling mom friends. And I still had Tartine, Scoma's and Mongolian food at "Let's Jazz" to fit in, plus a couple of places on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley.
Yes, Tartine -- I had initially given up when I first walked by on a late afternoon, but the driver's assurance that if one goes early, it wouldn't be so packed gave me hope. It had been recommended over and over that I felt I had to go.
Another tip from the driver was that the California Street Cable Car usually didn't have a lineup, and it went up the steepest of San Francisco's hills.

We reached our first "lunch stop" at Haight-Ashbury and received a code for the staff washroom at the Haight Street Market. I am thankful that we got to use the washroom, but there was no way I was going to waste my time here waiting in line for a sandwich. Not when an intriguing purple store was right across the street: The Love of Ganesha.

The veiled entrance is a brilliant transition from the busy-ness of Haight Street into a totally different space that is more peaceful and infinitely more exotic. Even the changing rooms are elegantly and exotically furnished. The next thing that will probably catch your eye is the curious "meditation cave" at the back, like a short dome hut, with an elephant inside. Look closer and it is a shrine to Ganesha.

This is a holy place.

Staff are welcoming and friendly, and invite you to use the meditation cave if you show any interest in it at all -- even if you don't buy anything from the store. They do ask you to remove your shoes first, so it's best to bring a friend who can watch your things (e.g., your shoes) while you are inside if you are at all nervous about someone walking off with your stuff while you are having your quiet time.

At this point, keenly aware of time, I really wasn't sure what came over me but seeing the offerings of fruit in front of the shrine (and the note to please not steal the fruit when using the meditation cave), I was inspired to present an offering. I was overcome with a sense of gratefulness -- for a safe trip so far, for everything I had in my life, for the kindnesses people had shown me throughout my trip.
I was also immediately conflicted because in the Bhagavad-Gita, Lord Krishna basically teaches that he is everything, and worshipping any of the lesser gods is basically inferior, and indirect way of venerating him, and in a way a waste of time because ultimately your spiritual goal is to escape the illusion of the material world and karmic reaction, and the other gods, though spiritually more advanced, are still part of that world.
Anyway, I rushed back to the Haight Street Market and grabbed a bunch of bananas, and a 1-pound pack of curious "Kumato" brown tomatoes for "lunch". Back to The Love of Ganesha with time trickling down to the rendezvous with the tour. I asked if I could make an offering, and the staff person I spoke with thanked me for it. I took off my shoes and went inside to place the bananas and close my eyes briefly in grateful prayer and a moment of quiet time.

Normally I completely miss all sorts of "spiritual reactions" like feelings of openness or elation after kirtan, or any sort of energy healing. But this one time... I felt... something. It was like the space enveloped me and immediately began to reduce -- to combat -- the anxiety of what was a busy day. So quickly and instantly did the feeling come upon that I was honestly shocked, and initially a little frightened.
I wish I could have stayed longer.
I thanked Ganesha and Lord Krishna, then left the cave reverently. I thanked the staff person for creating this special space. She invited me to please have something to eat from a table of assorted treats -- cookies, some sweets (?), and mandarin oranges -- next to a cooler of cold water with lemon and cucumber slices floating inside. I accepted a small paper cup of the refreshing water and took just one mandarin orange before leaving the store.
Leaving forever, I guess.
It's unlikely I'll ever be back.

Curiously, my diary notes for Sunday's tour end here until after the day was done, though there were still moments that made me pause. I suppose the pace of the tour, and always feeling worried I would miss something if I didn't stare out the van window, led me to put my journal away.

Two incidents at the Golden Gate Bridge.
First, I overheard the one female jogger lash out at a tourist with unexpected vitriol. "Don't point that camera at me, bitch! I can report you!" or something like that. Holy moly. Was she actually being recorded or was the tourist pointing it over her head at the Golden Gate Bridge behind her? Why'd she have the hubris to think she was so worthy of being photographed as a keepsake by a random stranger probably from the antipodes who will never ever see her again?

Second, the Golden Gate Bridge really held no fascination for me. Maybe after seeing it so many times in pictures I was jaded. Instead I wandered into the nearby Fort Point to get a different view of the area up atop the fort walls, as well as to look at the displays of how soldiers there lived. Why had I never heard of this? It was great! The fort itself appeared well-preserved and the details (like what food rations a soldier got per day) really helps to imagine life there.
But even more interesting than the Fort itself was the one person in a wheelchair in the lonely courtyard. Everyone else had of course clambered up the stairs to the floors and roof to check the displays and enjoy the view. But without tampering with the Fort, it couldn't be wheelchair accessible. And so we have the quandary of how to include the "mobility challenged".
It might have been possible to carry the wheelchair up some of the broader winding steps, but that would have taken at least two persons. So this one person in the wheelchair... what could they do except park in the courtyard and just look wistfully up.
I think that one moment, helped me closely empathize with wheelchair bound persons. For so many things that "normal" people take for granted, you are at the mercy of the sympathy of others. That is a very disempowering feeling that reduces you to a beggar. Or you can have your dignity and not ask -- and miss out.

Totally lost track of time at Fort Point and got back to the Dylan's Tour van late with everyone waiting for me. I hate being late.
Onwards over the bridge toward Muir Woods -- passing by colourful (and sardined-with-people) Sausalito, which I still think would have been a better lunch stop than Haight-Ashbury, though a half hour wouldn't have been enough here.
At the Woods I set my cellphone alarm app to give me a thirty-minute warning then headed into the redwoods.

Muir Woods was a forest. We also have forests in Vancouver and the surrounds as well.
Okay, Muir Woods has taller trees. I'll give them that.

I didn't have time to hear the full nature talk from the Park Ranger, but all the information he had to give was already in the brochure you got when you purchased your entrance ticket.
The plank walkways are an interesting choice here because they help to keep visitors from wandering into, and disrupting, the woods. Which also limited your interaction with the trees, so every chance I got I reached out to touch a tree. I idly thought of taking off my shoes and hugging trees, but that would have been too weird for the never-ending stream of tourists. Instead I had to be satisfied by placing my palm briefly against the bark, and thanking them for being here.
The unasked question was, "Why did I do that?"

Proceeding further along, I caught up with an older couple from our group who were doing Dylan's Tour as their one thing before flying out for Burma that night. They asked me to take a photo, and as soon as I agreed, the wife stepped right off the platform path to stand next to a tree.
I was aghast. I tried to explain it was not allowed, but she simply stated matter-of-factly, "I am here already" and got ready to be photographed.
We all laughed and I took the photo.
Later, back at the van, when the husband regaled me with tales of their fantastic-bordering-on-spiritual experiences in other countries, he'd say that the best pictures are the forbidden ones. Like when you're not supposed to take photographs -- apparently something his benignly irreverent wife was apt to do.
Then he invited me to join them travelling in Burma. Nice! (And no, I didn't take him up on that offer--I had hiking with friends on Monday).

The final incident of interest for me happened during the photo-op at the Marin Headlands. There is a fence to prevent daredevils from going too far off road and down the hill. On that simple fence was a lonely lock. A woman spotted that and told her companion she was going to pick it and to give her "5 minutes". She returned shortly with a lockpicking set.
Yes -- she had what looked like a set of professional picks, not makeshift tools. And just like that, she sat down and started picking that lock.
Who the hell has that?
This was particularly of interest to me because of the sheer coincidence that on my last overseas trip to Germany (many, many years ago), my local friend took me to a curious and artistic place he called The Imperfect Hotel, where various artists could occupy various public rooms and practice their craft -- and people can occasionally wander in. In one of those rooms was a meeting of what appeared to be a club of lockpickers, complete with a practice door lock and a myriad of tools.

Cheapish tapas at The Hastings Warehouse

The Hastings Warehouse on Urbanspoon Sure, it's a $4.95 menu, but you get tapas portions. For example, you get about 10 small wings (plus token "salad" of a short stick of limp carrot and a short stick of limp celery) for that price; or about five prawns on baguettes and smothered with token salad.
So actually it is only slightly-cheaper eats because it will take probably two to four orders to add up to an entrée/main (depending on what you order). This is basically a drinking establishment where food is a snacking afterthought.

Of the items we tried (salt and pepper wings; and garlic prawns), taste was okay.

We went in at around 9:40 PM and the kitchen was so slow I thought they forgot our order.

Music videos were played louder than almost any pub or club I've ever been to. Don't sit across the tables from the person you are trying to talk to since you will only smear food on your clothes as you repeatedly lean across to faintly hear what they are yelling at you.

I think it is absolutely perfect that this place is just down the block from Wildebeest. Once you run out of money there and are still not full, you can wander down here and eat some more, cheaply on credit.


Feeling ripped off by Wildebeest

Wildebeest on Urbanspoon It's been years since I was at Wildebeest. Finally came back when a "meatatarian" friend of mine resurfaced suddenly and wanted to go to a meat place. She a more posh sort of girl, so I didn't want to suggest something low-brow like Hog Shack. So how about Wildebeest?

Huge mistake. But I almost guarantee it will not be the reasons you are thinking of. Anyway, let's first look at what our party of three ate tonight that cost a whopping $43.33 per person BEFORE tax and tip.

Fried freshwater smelt ($9) blistered shisito peppers, toasted pine nut and lemon aioli
  • Bitter peppers are not hot. Felt like a waste of time, honestly, since they were palatable only when their flavour was masked by a huge gob of aioli. I guess there might be a small demographic that actually likes straight-bitter food?
  • The small pile of smelt is actually smaller than you think because of the empty space between the smelt. You could probably collapse the amount into less than a deck of cards. Way overpriced for $9.
  • Smelt felt rather on the oily side. Thankfully this is covered up by the tasty aioli.
Hand-cut poutine ($10) chicken and mushroom gravy, cheese curds
  • "Chicken and mushroom gravy" can be read in various ways:
    • If you assume that all reasonably conscientious persons of course use the Oxford comma, then the gravy is made from chicken and mushroom; instead of there being chicken, as well as mushroom gravy.
    • But since there is no comma, there is ambiguity, and therefore someone might actually think there is chicken.
    • Whether the gravy is made of mushroom or both chicken and mushroom, there is also the possible expectation that there will actually be visible chunks of chicken and/or mushroom. This is not the case.
  • Cheese curds melted at the bottom.
  • Gravy is pre-smeared all over each french fry.
    • Each fry is pretty evenly and generously coated.
    • This is good: Saves you from having to dip in gravy.
    • This is bad: The fries are soggy by the time the dish hits your table.
  • For $10 the portion is maybe half or less of what you can get at Mean Poutine, except that Mean Poutine also gives you some sort of topping like meat.
  • Sorry, tastiness just isn't enough to justify $10 here. Maybe I'm not enough of a gravy connoisseur, but I don't think there's anything particularly special with the poutine.
Slow-poached farm egg ($4) onion purée & barley, cheese, garlic scapes, toasted buckwheat
  • Kinda like a soft boiled egg with stuff on it.
  • Interesting textures but I'm not so big on the taste -- it just didn't taste tasty to me. However the other persons in our trio seemed to like it. Certainly an interesting way to have egg.
  • Dark orange yolk -- organic?
The ribeye ($93) foie gras & bone marrow jus
  • We were told this was 32 oz. Which is like 4 x 8 oz steaks.
    • Four steaks for three persons? We were worried it would be too much food, but turned out it was gone really fast.
    • I'm suspicious that it was not a full 32 oz since eating a single 8 to 12 oz steak should honestly have taken long enough that you need a side to alleviate meat fatigue halfway through. But since we didn't weigh it, I'm going to assume it was a whole 32 oz.
      • Honestly, it looked like maybe 12 oz tops. Maybe it was 32 oz BEFORE cooking?
  • After we ordered, the server came back to check on us, maybe 5-10 minutes (?) after and the ETA at that point was another 50 minutes. Fifty.
    • Really? It was going to be pre-sliced for sharing, and I think any steakhouse can pump out 4 x 8 oz steaks ordered at the same time faster than 1 hour.
    • When I first inquired about the ribeye over e-mail, the estimate was 35-45 minutes prep time. The paper menu in the restaurant said to allow 45 minutes. Then our server ups it to 50 minutes some time after we order? Luckily we had a later reservation with apparently no line at the door waiting for our table.
  • "Foie gras & bone marrow jus" reads like "there will be foie gras, as well as bone marrow jus". See above for why people should expect the Oxford comma, or else rewrite or differently punctuate their sentences to avoid ambiguity.
    • Yeah, we thought there'd be a piece of foie gras.
      • We separately ordered it. If we hadn't stopped eating our steak, the foie gras would have come long, long, after the steak was gone.
      • We were told a couple of times that it was imminently ready. Each time was about 5-10 minutes apart.
      • The portion that came was about the size of two books of matchsticks.
    • Despite this special jus, the ribeye didn't come across as being particularly special. Nicely done medium rare, yes. More special than something you can get at a steakhouse that didn't screw up medium rare? No.
After the ribeye, we ordered the other stuff, but honestly I gave up. I was still not full after sharing all the items we ordered so we went to the $4.95 menu place down the same block and ordered a couple of their tapas plates.
I think all three of us felt ripped off. But that isn't good enough for me: I wanted to dissect that feeling and find out why.

(1) Ambiguity
I've already indicated places where the menu could be read differently. You can argue that the diner read it "wrong", but regardless of whose "fault" it is, the menu could be rewritten to eliminate ambiguity. The bottom line is if the diner feels led to expect something else, the server can explain till his face turns blue but it's already too late.

Another example of ambiguity:
When I first asked about the ribeye, this was the response I got:

Me: "Could you please let me know how much advance notice is required for the Ribeye, and for how many persons it is meant to be shared."

Wildebeest: "The ribeye doesn't require pre-ordering and can be prepared with about 35-45 minutes doneness while you enjoy your earlier courses. It's certainly large enough to be enjoyed by quite a few guests - just how many depending on the quantity of other dishes being enjoyed."

In retrospect this was a totally vague response. Since our party had dropped from 6 to 3 (no thanks to flaky people dropping out at the last moment) I thought we'd be fine and hopefully have a reasonable meal by ordering it for three. We didn't know it was 32 oz until we asked our server, and even at that point we thought we'd have a filling meal.
Fortunately we weren't a party of six waiting almost an hour for a portion of steak that would be gone in less than 3 minutes.
Our expectations had been incorrectly set and that contributed to disappointment. Price is a big factor as well, but I'll get into that later.

For my part, I could have pressed harder over e-mail to get more concrete responses, but terms like "quite a few guests" suggested more than 1-3. Yet I think any one of our party could have finished that 32 oz all on their own, especially as it came with no sides. You didn't need to be a steak challenge champ to do it.
Looking back at the e-mail from the restaurant, I now noticed that they hedged their response by adding "just how many depending on the quantity of other dishes being enjoyed". So they've got their rear covered: If each of three persons had ordered three poutines each (for example), they'd have been sated after the ribeye?
But who the thinks of doing that? We all thought we had a dish sized big enough to give each of us a full entree. Why would we buy multiple appetizers per person or even another entree? (Nevermind that some appetizers are smaller than others).

(2) Price
Wildebeest isn't really geographically positioned for it, and more importantly doesn't look it, but if the cost of the ribeye is the benchmark, it is pricing itself as a Black + Blue or Gotham.
Big problem: It's not Gotham or Black+Blue. It doesn't have the amenities, ambiance, or service; nor does it convey the same prestige for dining there -- all of which are factors that allow posh places to charge extra for the supposed privilege for dining at their expensively decorated and maintained establishments.
I honestly don't think diners are expecting Gotham prices when they walk into Wildebeest, and you can see just how many furious complaints about price versus portion there are on Urbanspoon.

(3) Portion
When a restaurant insists things are "family style" and "for sharing", then it really needs to do one of the following:
  • (A) Give a fair portion for price, enough that what they order can actually be shared instead of being a single-person portion.
  • (B) Charge a small price if they are giving small portions, to set the price-to-portion expectation correctly.
These reasons are why Chinese restaurants are "family style" for dinner (reason A) or dim sum brunch (reason B) and no one complains. They are doing "family style" "for sharing" properly.
Again, here I am proceeding on the assumption that most of the people who walk into Wildebeest aren't aware they've actually walked into Gotham Steakhouse. If diners have their price expectation properly set, they won't go bug-eyed at barely a bowlful of poutine that costs $10 (they wouldn't try to share it, either, probably).

$93 for a 32 oz ribeye is the price for three mains to be shared between three persons, and with a portion quoted that suggests it would be meals for three persons before dessert. That's not what we got.

*

I think the best moves to avoid future diner disappointment is for Wildebeest to do the following:
  • Edit the menu to remove ambiguities
  • Drop all this talk about "family style" and "for sharing". People will share if they want to.
In the meantime, as diners, you can do this:
  • Ignore everything they say about "family style" and "for sharing".
    • Order stuff FOR YOURSELF. Then share if you want to.
  • Look at the small plates as appetizers and larger plates as mains. Then look at the prices and decide if you want to eat here.