Thursday, July 24, 2014

Blue Ribbon Artisan Pizzeria

Jason here. While we were visiting family in San Diego, we were brought to one of our host’s favorite pizza places, Blue Ribbon Artisan Pizzeria.

As an appetizer, Kayleigh and I split a peaches, blackberries and prosciutto salad, which came topped with goat cheese, hazelnuts, and sherry vinaigrette. The blackberries, fresh greens, and prosciutto were delicious. I enjoyed the salty prosciutto mixing wonderfully with the black berries and vinaigrette. The hazelnuts and cheese added a bit of an earthy and, of course, nutty flavor to the whole salad. It’s a shame, but the peaches were really overwhelmed here and added very little to an otherwise great salad.

For our main course, Kayleigh and I split a “My Father’s” pizza with a gluten free crust substitution. While they do have the obligatory cross contamination disclaimer, I can confidently say I had no issues with my meal. We went with this particular pizza, as I wanted some form of meat and Kayleigh wanted to try something with fresh mozzarella. It turned out to be a great choice.

The mozzarella was placed on the pizza in large pieces, so biting into it offered not only a burst of mozzarella flavor, but also added some texture to the pizza. As a fan of extra cheese, I definitely enjoyed the liberal helpings of the large melted mozzarella pieces. The pepperoni came in extra-large pieces, which was also a nice surprise. While Kayleigh likes red onion, I’ve never been a fan of them on my pizza so these I could have done without. The fennel sausage on the other hand, was my favorite part. The bits of sausage were heavily seasoned with herbs which added to the overall pizza. As opposed to blending together, I could taste each ingredient in the pizza individually with each imparting its own distinct flavor.

Kayleigh here. This pizzeria was fairly small and quite busy when we arrived, but we were seated quickly and served just as fast. The pizzas were a beautiful example of fresh foods done right- a simple thin crust covered with an even distribution of ripe vegetables, barely melted cheese, and heavily seasoned meats. Each bite was a well-rounded combination of flavors and textures, complimenting each other so well that I enjoyed even the strong fennel flavor from the sausage because of how it enhanced the sweetness of the tomato sauce. When a restaurant can get me to actually enjoy the meat in a dish instead of resigning myself to it, I know I found a winner.

If you’re looking for a fun little pizzeria with a gluten free crust offering, then Blue Ribbon Artisan Pizzeria may just be the right fit for you.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Safe Travels in Japan - Conbinis

Convenience stores - 'Conbini' - 7-11, Family Mart, Sunkus, etcetera

One of the first places we stopped to grab a bite to eat in Japan was a 7-11. As it turns out, convenience stores are everyone where in Japan. In Tokyo, it seemed there was at least one on every block. On the first day, I was still carrying around a bunch of kind bars as a backup. I wanted to try a bunch of new things in Japan, but getting sick my first day wouldn’t do any good. I picked up some Salmon Roe Onigiri, Peach Yogurt Drink, and Hagen dahz vanilla ice cream. A perfectly balanced meal if ever there was one. The peach yogurt drink, and hagen dahz I knew would be safe. On the other hand, Onigiri could have soy sauce. We looked up all of the kanji for soy sauce, and gluten that we knew of and checked the ingredients. Not feeling confident in our very first ingredients check, we also managed to confirm our findings with the clerk in our broken Japanese.

Of course what we thought was Salmon Onigiri, turned out to be Salmon Roe Onigiri. Salmon being the fish, and Salmon Roe being the fish eggs. It would probably be a good to take a moment and explain Onigiri. Onigiri in its simplest form is white rice, shaped and wrapped with dried seaweed. The rice usually has some form of sugar to help it keep the shape. Finally, it comes with all kinds of different fillings. Some common gluten free fillings we encountered were salmon, salmon roe, pickled plumb, and shrimp with mayonnaise.

The peach yogurt drink was really good, but definitely an interesting experience texture wise. It comes in a plastic cup, with a plastic straw you stick through the foil on the top. Since you are drinking it through a straw it comes through very inconsistently, with bit of peach getting stuck momentarily before shooting up the straw at precisely a billion miles an hour. The taste by itself was like a normal peach yogurt.

The salmon roe onigiri was my favorite part of the meal. The dried seaweed is just so crunchy in Japan, that it makes the perfect wrapper. Not to mention I enjoy white rice already, but salmon roe added a nice salty taste to balance the sweet rice. Aside from the taste I will say the hold together much better than one would imagine, which makes them easy to eat on the go with no mess. I’m not sure if I am just technically challenged, but I found the onigiri wrappers to be incredibly complex to unwrap. They come preshaped, but yet the seaweed is still wrapped separately from the rice. This makes perfect sense, as it can keep the seaweed nice and crispy, but also means I have to unwrap the seaweed without breaking it and without spilling\dropping the exposed rise, then put it together again. It’s hard to describe without actually trying it once, so I hope each and every one of you gets the chance one day to look as silly as I did.

I don’t have too much to say about the vanilla Hagen Dahz. It tasted just fine, but came in a disappointingly small container. As it turns out, I would be in the mood for ice cream this entire trip so I found myself picking these up almost every night.

On future trips, besides sampling all sorts of onigiri, we found that most convenience stores had store brand dried fruits that were gluten free. Not raisins or prunes- there were dried and lightly sweetened strawberries, mangos, mandarin oranges, and many other tasty variations. On the more savory side of snacks, we found dried squid was often safe- think dry jerky, but it tasted like, well, squid. And on the really safe side, every convenience store carried Soyjoys. Completely gluten free and in a dozen or so flavors, these were by far the easiest thing to load up on and carry around as emergency rations.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

AFK Elixers & Eatery Review

(As of the posting, the main website is under construction, but the AFK Tavern site has a very similar menu)

Jason here. Recently we took a trip down to Renton to eat at AFK Elixirs & Eatery. If the name sounds familiar that is most likely because it is the sister restaurant to AFK Tavern up in Everett. Known for its popular geek references, and free board games which you can play while you eat. I’ve heard about AFK since the moment we moved out here, so we were happy to finally have one open a bit closer to home. 

As the menu and waitress explained, the restaurant only just opened up a few months ago, so some of the kinks are being worked out. With that said, it’s important to note the main sign to the restaurant is not up yet, so there is a smaller sign closer to street level. It’s a bit hard to see and we actually drove right passed it the first time. The restaurant is located on an easy to find road, with plenty of parking so that was no issue.

The first few things I noticed while entering the building was the Link’s sword and shield from the Zelda series, and Farscape playing on the TV in the waiting area. If geek\nerd culture is your thing, then you will feel right at home at AFK E&E. References to everything from Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar, to your favorite video games, and many more are all represented. 

It was busy the night we went, but we were still shorted after just a short wait. I was happy to find many of the tables around us playing various card and board games. One group even brought their laptops and were playing League of Legends. 

The drink menu is just a fantastic read. Even if you are the DD and don’t plan on drinking that night, at least read through the menu. 

It took while for our food to come out, but we had a blast just chatting and laughing and discussing references in the menu. I don’t really count the meal taking a while against AFK because your experience is designed around playing games and having a good time. If your came in looking for a quick traditional meal, then your expectations were off to begin with. There are plenty of board games which are all completely free to play. Just remember a board game does not mean it has to be a 2 hour game of Risk or Monopoly. If you’re not sure what to play, just ask your waiter and they can recommend you fun group games which are easy to pick up, and have a great time right out of the gate.

For my drink I ordered a Mana Potion and later a Demon Hunter. The drink menu is laid out so you can quickly find Sweet, Fruit, Bitter, and other drink types. Both of the drinks lived up to their descriptions, and I found myself a bit tipsy by the end of the night. 

While the menu does not have items individually labeled as gluten free, it does specifically call out that gluten free pasta is available as a swap for $2 extra. The waiter also answered our questions and went and verified with the chef anything she was not immediately aware of. 

For my meal I ordered the Firebat Penne, with bacon and mushrooms, and a spice rating of 3. We arrived to AFK far later than original planned, so luckily I was starving when I received the huge bowl of pasta. Normally I would have definitely had some left overs, which is great. I always appreciate when a meal more than fills me up and I am able to take some in to work the next day for lunch. 

It was sufficiently cheesy, and a spice that added both taste and heat. At a spice rating of 3, it was not immediately burning, but did build up some eat as I began to finish. I can definitely see reordering at that rating, or a bit higher if I’m feeling up for something spicier. There was no shortage of sauce, filled with mushrooms and smaller strips of bacon. The mushrooms definitely added some taste and texture to the meal. The bacon on the other hand, I will probably leave out next time. The bacon flavor was mostly overwhelmed by everything else, and the texture did not really add to the meal. It was an extra I added on, so no points against the Firebat itself. 

Kayleigh here. This place is a must-visit if you think you might enjoy the theme, or if you are starting to feel bored of regular dining-only restaurants. Even if you don't plan on pulling out a game to play yourself, the regulars at nearby tables are entertainment enough with what they choose to bring. Try to name the references to your favorite franchises (or internet jokes) on the menus and decorations, or get a seat near the bar to watch whatever nerdy show they have on that night.

As for the food, the gluten free pasta is directly called out on the menu, but the burgers can also be served without buns. The soup does change periodically, but it was gluten free when we went and our waitress mentioned that the salad could be made gluten free as well. We did not ask about the other entrees, but several appeared to be gluten free from the descriptions and there were a couple of dessert options to be found. As Jason pointed out, though, the drink menu is well worth a read-through, and we found quite a few unique cocktails that we will have to try on future visits!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Safe Travels in Japan - Gyu Kaku

(here is the english menu for locations in Japan)

Jason here. Now I get to review my favorite restaurant from our Japan trip, the yakiniku joint Gyu-Kaku. It took a bit to find, as it was on the third or fourth floor of a building situated off of a side road. By some miracle, a friendly local saw what must have been our obviously lost faces, and came over to give us directions. I’m not sure how, but as soon as we mentioned the restaurant name, he pointed to exactly where it was around the corner, and gave perfect instructions. This was in an area with what must have been 2 or 3 dozen restaurants within a block radius.

At a yakiniku restaurant, you order a variety of meats and vegetables which are brought to your table raw. You then cook these over a grill located at your table.
The restaurant itself utilized every inch of space, with tightly packed booths of customers, and a long bar which also had grills to sit and order food at. Gyu-Kaku was crazy busy, with new customers coming in as soon as some left. We must have arrived at just the right moment, as we were seated immediately. The pace at which customers came, foreshadowed just how good the food was going to be.
The menu had an option for unlimited food and alcohol for a set price, and we made sure to communicate no soy sauce. This is important since some dishes may be marinated in soy sauce when they are brought to the table. Gyu-Kaku has an English menu available, and there was some limited English spoken by our waiter.

We ordered beef tongue, pork, black-haired beef, scallops, shrimp, squid, bacon cubes, basil chicken, and sweet potato.

For an unlimited meal we only had a set amount of time to eat them, so we got right to cooking setting a good variety down on the grill to start.

I loved the ability to cook my own food here, as it meant I could take things off as early or as late as I want. Controlling how raw, or crispy I wanted a particular dish.

The scallops, shrimp, and squid were good, but tasted exactly like you would expect. Like everywhere we went in Japan, the shrimp were served whole so we had to figure out a way to de-shell them. I’m not sure if we followed etiquette and procedure as we did so.

The basil chicken was extremely good. This wasn’t your grocery market packaged chicken that comes out tasting dry. No this was excellently prepared chicken, where each bite bursts with flavor in your mouth. Even after I not so excellently burned a few of the pieces by leaving them on the grill too long. No matter what, these pieces kept their flavor.

The bacon cube, were massive. Easily an inch or more on each side. I left them on the grill for a while to get nice and crisp on the outside, but still juicy on the inside. Even Kayleigh enjoyed these. I’ve never had bacon that thick so it was a great experience.

I definitely recommend you pick up a side order of sweet potato fries. The various meats are delicious, but you will need a pallet cleanser now and again after eating so many foods of the salty variety. You can leave the sweet potatoes on the grill for as long as your heart desires, so you get perfectly crispy fries each time.

By far my favorite of the night was unexpectedly the thinly sliced beef tongue. Even better than the black-haired beef.  Only about a millimeter or so thick, these round slices of beef tongue grill up nice and crispy. They tasted like the most succulent steak I had ever had. If I had to pick one meal to live off of the rest of my life, it might be these.

While the meal was expensive, between the unlimited drinks and food, and the absolutely superb taste I can’t recommend Gyu-Kaku enough.

Kayleigh here. While this place was definitely Jason heaven, I thought it was such a novel concept to be allowed to use a hot grill and consume smoking food as you got progressively more intoxicated.  Seriously, though, we decided to simplify things by ordering everything at the start, and they brought the dishes out one or two at a time at the same pace we were going through them.

It was a fantastically novel experience to be able to cook your own food, since it brought a fun activity to the table. Especially when we were pulling the sweet potato slices out of their foil bowl and grilling them one by one- then had the waiter quietly let us know we were supposed to just put the bowl onto the grill. We found it embarrassingly funny to have made that faux pas, made all the more funny because we were sure we had been messing up some part of every meal since we flew in and had noone to point it out to us.

Since we ended up ordering a pretty good sampling of them here, now would be a good time to mention the chuhai. Short for Shochu Highball, it's a mixer made from a sweet potato-based alcohol and comes in a variety of fruit flavors. They are refreshing, deceptively alcoholic, and less of a girly drink than the usual wine cooler. We bought them in canned form at convenience stores and mixed at bars and never found any issues with gluten. It was great to have such a tasty beer alternative!