Saturday, April 29, 2017

Dinner @ Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, CA

So after years of having it as my #1 restaurant to try (my prior #1 was Benu, which I hit up in 2014), I was finally able to hit up Atelier Crenn in San Francisco for my birthday.

Atelier Crenn is one of the most unique restaurants in the area.  There is no menu presented, the chef instead provides a poem in which each line of the poem represents a dish.  It was sort of fun to try and guess what was coming.  For example, "black pearls" in the poem was somewhat obviously going to be caviar, but we were completely wrong guessing what "blue umami" was.  We also were presented with a "menu" of random pictures representing some dessert dishes.

Atelier Crenn has recently got a lot of attention that made me think I wasn't going to dine at this restaurant for awhile.  It recently got ranked as a top 100 restaurant in the world (#83 as of this writing), the head chef Dominique Crenn was named best female chef in the world in 2016.  On top of all that, she was recently featured in an episode of Chef's Table on Netflix.  Perhaps knowing of her celebrity status, she came by to great each guest at their table which was nice.

My girlfriend somehow got me a spot for my birthday.  So here's what we got.  Given the menu is written as a poem and pictures, I'm just going to write the ingredients in the dishes as it was told to us in a printed menu after the meal.

1) Amuse Bouche

So first up was this presentation with the poem menu.  It also includes the first course which was some dehydrated leaves coated in olive oil (the big green one, not the flowers).  I can't remember what plant it came from.  Overall, interesting.  I suppose this one is mostly for presentation.

2) Kir Breton

This is apparently a signature dish of the restaurant.  I didn't know this, but kir breton is a drink made with apple cider and creme de cassis.  Apparently creme de cassis is a currant based liqueur.

So clearly this is a reinterpretation.  The apple cider is liquid inside a white chocolate mold and the creme de cassis has been made into a jam of sorts on top.  Overall, an interesting tasty dish with an explosion of apple cider in one bite.

3) Citrus, Golden Trout Roe, Black Truffle

The next course was two things.  The "main" was the crisp with smoked trout roe and some type of black truffle cream/sauce.  Really really good.  One of my favorites in the meal.

The second was a small salad of herbs, multiple types of citrus (including a mandarin slice), something citrus gelatin, and something truffle-ish.  Overall quite tasty.  I was a little surprised by this dish, as it seemed somewhat "normal" given the restaurant's reputation for such whimsical dishes.  But I suppose it served as a palette cleanser of sorts for the next course.

4) Fish & Chip

This was a "fish and chips" re-interpretation of sorts.  On the top, was a single byte of trout with a sauce (can't remember, might have just been creme fraiche) On the bottom is a re-interpretation of "chips".  I believe it was some type of potato with seaweed powder on top.  The trout was really really good, it was definitely cured in some manner and the skin gave it a nice crisp texture difference.  I can't remember much about the chips.

5) Koshihikari Rice, Sea Urchin, Barigoule

This was a really interesting dish.  Crisp koshihikari rice, uni, in a white wine broth (which I guess is the barigoule).  The broth was delicious.  The rice was on the crispy side, which was interesting as it really contrasted with the uni.  The uni appeared to have been cooked a little bit, so it was a bit softer than I normally think of uni.  In fact, I think it's the first time I've ever had uni cooked (discounting when it's turned into a sauce or something similar).  Overall, the flavors were good but I think the rice was too crispy and too contrasting to the uni. 

6) Caviar, Turnip, Koji

Next up was the caviar course.   I can't remember what sauces were served with the caviar, but one was something seaweed-ish.  Perhaps the other was the "koji".  The daikon was also served as sort of a texture/palette difference between bites of caviar.  Overall, creamy, flavorful, lots of deliciousness.

7) Abalone, Roasted Garlic, Oyster Cream

This was probably my favorite course of the night and probably the best abalone I've ever had.  The abalone was soft and not chewy, so I think left a little uncooked.  It was coated in some (I believe) seaweed dust and had some additional sauces on it (can't remember, perhaps it's the "Roasted Garlic").  The main white sauce was an oyster cream and the yellow was something egg related.  Overall, tons of flavors, tons of umami, just delicious.

8) Morrel, Pine Nut, Parmesan Custard

Next up was another duo of dishes.  In the middle was some morrel mushrooms with a bit of parmesan melted on top.  If you've read anything else on my blog, you know I hate mushrooms.  However, morrel mushrooms get a pass because their texture is so far different from your normal/average mushrooms.  And I have to say, these mushrooms were really juicy, flavorful, and delicious.  The staff said they foraged these from the area.

In between bites of mushroom, there was a light parmesan custard with some pine nuts and creme fraiche balls.  Also good, although the morrels were better.

9) A-5 Wagyu, Foraged Spring Herbs, Carrot Veil

My girlfriend's first thought when she saw this dish is it reminded her of the eggplant dish we had at Narisawa.  Both in the presentation with foraged flowers and an agar sheet on top (the "carrot veil", which may be hard to see unless you zoom in).  Some chicken jus was plated at the table.

My first thought was that this chunk of wagyu was way bigger than what I normally get at Michelin star restaurants.  It was certainly more than Oriole or Californios, probably twice as much if not a little more than that.

Overall, this was delicious.  Perhaps the best wagyu I've ever had.  It had a bit more "firmness" than other A-5 wagyu I've had.  I'm not sure if it's due to it being a different cut from the cow or if it's simply the thickness of this cut.  Sometimes wagyu can be so fatty and soft that it almost doesn't feel like you're eating meat.  So that little bit of extra firmness really made this great.

10) Cow's Milk Cheese, Quince, Onion Marmalade

So this was a supplemental course for $25 (includes tip) which seems a tad pricey for a supplemental cheese course.  Well, when in Rome ...

Overall, quite tasty with the quince.  I believe asparagus was on top to give the grid pattern, but don't know that I actually tasted much of it.  Overall, quite tasty.

11) Nopal Elixir

Before all the desserts came out we got this palette cleanser drink.  I remember it contained atleast three juices, of which the only two I remember were cucumber and cactus.  Overall, refreshing and tasty.

12) White Chocolate Avocado Cremeux

This was the surprise of the night.  It's a single byte chocolate with a liquid in it.  It's a combination of avocado and chocolate, which I would not have thought would go well together, but it really did.  Add in the molded face in the chocolate, and it's definitely the most interesting and delicious dessert (and perhaps course) of the night.

13) Masa Crisp

An interesting dessert that was corn themed.  A chocolate on top, some corn chips, and corn-marshmallow in the middle.  Tasty and interesting, corn for dessert is not the first thing you think about and it took some time to process after the first bite.

14) Frozen Shaved Cacao Fruit

So this was another really interesting dish, it's the "fruit" part of a cacao plant.  We're of course used to eating the beans of cacao plants for chocolate.  I wasn't even aware the rest of the plant was even edible.  Apparently it was frozen and then lightly shaved to give it a "shaved ice" kind of texture.  Some hibiscus tea was poured on top.  The first few bytes of this dish reminded me of lychee flavor.  It's not exactly the same, but there were similar hints of the flavor.  Overall, a really interesting and tasty dessert dish.

15) Carmelized Honey, Sapote Ice Cream, Maracuya

This dessert was honey themed.  I've never had sapote before so no real comments on the flavor.  Overall, I recall the flavor as more mild than other desserts.

16) Vanilla Bean Guanabana Fruit, Crystallized Tobacco Leaf

Next up was this fake vanilla bean with guanabana fruit liquid/cream in the middle of chocolate.  I'd never had guanabana before, but it was really tangy.  Very good.  The crystallized tobacoo leaf was interesting, as I don't think I've ever had tobacco leaf before.  In the middle of the table, some liquid nitrogen was poured into a dish with vanilla to give the essence of vanilla in the presentation.

17) Recreation of Agave, Coconut, Iced Sotol

Finally we had this agave & coconut flavored dessert.  I think the green on the right was meant to recreate an agave plant and the white mound on the middle was coconut flavored cake of sorts.  The iced Sotol (I think basically tequilla) was put on top.  Overall, I liked the coconut flavored part of the dessert the most, not sure if the icey sotol added much.

Now that we're done with the desserts, I think I'll mention that I really like how they are so different.  We have a drink, chocolate liquidy thing, a crispy tortilla thing, an shaved-ice thing, an ice cream thing, whatever the vanilla bean counts as, and this cake-like thing (which is perhaps the most normal of the six).  So many different textures and flavors and ways to do desserts makes it all really fun and interesting and might be the best dessert experience I've had in my Michelin star dining experiences.

18) Mignardises, Chocolate

Can't remember everything but the two on the left were chocolate, then a peanut-ish crisp, and peach pate de fruit.  I really liked the peanut crisp.  I actually dislike peanuts as a flavor in general, but this one was lighter in flavor and very light.

19) "Spanish Coin"

This isn't on the menu, the staff brought this out as an extra for my birthday.  It's a "spanish coin" ice cream sandwich of sorts, with more gold leaf than any other dish I think I've ever had before. Overall good, but can't remember much as we were getting towards the end of the meal.

20) Granola Bar

This was a granola bar to go.  Ate it for breakfast the next day.  Definitely better than the Nature's Valley junk I normally eat.  There were raisins, almonds, and a ton of honey.

Overall the meal took about 2.5 hours.  Unlike some other restaurants, I left satisfyingly full.  To be honest, we were quite full after the main courses and were a tad worried about dessert over-stuffing us.  However, the desserts were mostly "small" items except the last one, so we didn't feel like we were getting overly stuffed at any point.

Overall, Atelier Crenn definitely met its hype.  A ton of interesting and delicious dishes all around.  I'm debating where I put this meal in my overall rankings, but it's definitely in the top 3 meals I've ever had.  I'm still debating in my head how it ranks against Benu and Narisawa.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Mass Effect: Andromeda - Criticisms

I just finished up Mass Effect: Andromeda.  The game has gotten notably bad press over some aspects of the game.  For a series that got stellar reviews on the prior generation of platforms (on gamerankings across all platforms, about 90% for Mass Effect, 94% for Mass Effect 2, and about 90% for Mass Effect 3) the reviews on newer platforms for Mass Effect: Andromeda have been quite bad (74% on Xbox, 69% on PS4).

Here are some things I think were bad about the game.  Some simple changes could have made the experience far better.  Needless to say ...


1) Unable to skip cutscenes

Perhaps my biggest irritation was the inability to skip pre-generated cutscenes and the general horrible "flow" of completing quests.  For example, lets say you've just completed a mission and need to fly back to the Nexus to talk to someone to complete the quest.  You have to

A) somehow get to the Tempest (via extraction via Nomad or going to ship, whatever)
B) watch an unskippable pre-generated cutscene flying off planet
C) goto planetary controls
D) zoom out from your current planet
E) select the solar system the Nexus is on
F) watch an unskippable cutscene flying over to the solar system
G) select the planet the Nexus is near
H) watch an unskippable cutscene flying over to the planet
I) select that you want to dock at the Nexus
J) watch a pre-generated cutscene fying into the Nexus
K) do whatever you wanted to do on the Nexus
L) When you leave, watch another pre-generated cutscene leaving

The 5 unskippable cutscenes just makes the entire process tedious and horrible.

Why could you just fast travel to the Nexus or any number of planets with a single selection?  It would have helped the "flow" a lot better.  It would have easily made the game a lot better.

(Update: After a patch update you can skip the cutscene in 'H' ... but that's only 1 cutscene you can skip).

1-A) Bad "flow" in the game

Related to the above.  There were many "flow" parts of the game that were just annoying.  The tiniest things could have made it better.  Kadara is a great example of horrible flow.

Lets say you want to complete a mission that's somewhere on the Kadara wasteland.  Take all of the above (replacing Nexus with Kadara), but ...

K-2) select from the terminal you want to travel down to the slums
K-3) walk outside of the slums
K-4) fast travel wherever you need OR call in the Nomad

Why can't you just go to the outside immediately?  Why isn't the Nomad just there already?

These are all "flow" issues that make the game more irritating.  Some of it always exists, but there was just a little too much of it.

2) Too many "dumb" quests or "fillers"

Every RPG out there has what I typically call "dumb quests".  These are quests like fetch quests ("can you fetch me this item") or finding quests ("if you come across these items can you please bring it to me").  Some are typically fine, as it forces/gets the user to explore a bit more than they otherwise might.

However, Andromeda just seemed to be awash in these quests.  As an example is the "movie night" quests.  Throughout the game your crew wants to throw a movie night.  You have to get movies from the Nexus, a bootleg movie from Kadara (BTW, why two movies?), some snacks from somewhere, some booze from somewhere else.  Maybe more that I can't remember.  Just so everyone can have a movie night.  Ugh ...

In Aya, I remember atleast 3 tasks in which a Turian asks you "I can't get into the city, can you buy some stuff for me"?  This happens THREE times with the same Turian.  Ugh ... 

In addition is there was a ton of "dumb exploration".  As an example, out of the maybe 30 galaxies in Mass Effect Andromeda, I think only about 10 had missions on them.  The vast majority of them are just filler solar systems that you can't explore or do anything except scan for anomalies or minerals.  Near the end of the game they introduce about 6 new solar systems to explore.  You get a mission in exactly zero of them.

The game could have been much better by limiting this aspect.  There was no need to add so much "filler".  I'm wondering if DLC is planned down the line to add things todo in all this "filler".

As an example of how much filler there was, the website how long to beat lists the following times to complete everything in the game:

Mass Effect - 44 hours
Mass Effect 2 - 50 hours
Mass Effect 3 - 49 hours
Mass Effect: Andromeda - 93 hours

Yeah ...

3) Bugs

In any major RPG nowadays there will be bugs.  I recall a healthy chunk in Fallout 4.  However, the bugs in Mass Effect: Andromeda just seemed more annoying or just crossed a threshold of annoying.  I generally consider animation bugs tolerable (I recall onetime I walked into a room in the Tempest and simply died by falling into space b/c the floor hadn't been generated).

However, there seemed to be a nice chunk of quest bugs where waypoints weren't set correctly.  So I wandered aimlessly for awhile or eventually had to look online for tips.

I also had to restart/reload the game a number of occasions (I recall once the game hanging, I reloaded, and the Nomad had somehow ended up being inside a Vault).  A few times is tolerable, but it was more than the normal acceptable level.  At some point, you are doing quests and can't complete it, so you just accept "I guess it's just bugged".

4) Constant scanning

I enjoyed the scanning aspect of the game, but there was just too much "look around in this area for the thing you need to look for."  At some point you scan all around you hoping for things to go faster.

5) Disappointing end battle

I was disappointed in the end battle.  Instead of fighting the archon, you just end up fighting tons of remnant (like you have been doing the entire game) and an architect, which I had already fought 4 times in the game.  What about an epic battle with the Archon?  IIRC, at some point he says something like "I control all the remnant" ... so perhaps the end battle could have been remnant and him versus your team?

6) Suspension of disbelief

There was a tiny suspension of disbelief problem I had in some elements of the story.  I'm completely ignoring the fact that the Angaran learn English nearly instantaneously after initially speaking to you in their native tongue (you just accept it for the game to continue).

At some point while playing I thought to myself, "I'm killing a lot of people."  Given that the game was supposed to be about humans and the other Milky Way races escaping the Milky Way to try and make a new home for themselves, it seems odd that I would be killing so many people.  I can accept there were "exiles" that left the Nexus, and perhaps I might kill a few here and there.  But I'm just killing tons of outcasts, collective, scavengers, traitors, exiles, etc.

The settlement on Elaaden made no sense to me either.  If there is no water on the planet, why would anyone even settle there?  My bet is that the Mass Effect team thought "We have a planet that's initially too cold to settle, so we also need a planet that's initially too hot to settle."

In addition, why is everyone so violent and willing to steal, kill, and destroy each other?  Weren't certain criminal elements vetted properly before traveling to another galaxy?  One tiny quest in the game attempts to address this, but it was a bit hard to suspend disbelief.


Online there are criticisms of the animations, lack of character depth, and story.  While maybe not as great a game as some of the earlier Mass Effect games (notably the wonderful Mass Effect 2), I would not pan the game on this alone.  Some story elements could have been better (such as the whole "SAM memory triggers" ... what a let down at the finish).  It could have been stronger, but it wasn't that big of a deal.

It's all of the little things above that just made the game not as good.  Some tiny subtleties in the game flow could have made it much more enjoyable.  Making the game a little "smaller" probably would have helped alot by getting rid of a lot of the filler and suspension of disbelief.  Add in a little bit better QA and a better boss battle at the end, and it could have easily been a game reviewed in the 80% range instead of 70% range.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Lunch @ Solbar in Calistoga, CA

I was in Calistoga for some business and grabbed lunch at the 1 Michelin star Solbar.  While I've been on some casual Michelin-star dining trips (Al's Place and Kin Khao come to mind), dining at Solbar is perhaps the most casual as it is A) a casual restaurant to begin with and B) for lunch.  This isn't a knock against Solbar, it simply is what it is.

The menu at Solbar is typical a la carte affair.  We grabbed some appetizers and some sandwiches, here's what we had.

1) beet salad

This salad was listed as "locally world famous" and I agreed with it.  It's a great salad.  It included two types of beets underneath the mound of frisee you see.  On the side you can find pureed beets, avocado, and grapefruit.  My favorite was the beet chips.  I would highly recommend this to anyone going to Solbar for lunch.

2) sol fries

My girlfriend loves fries so we had to get some for her.  While not quite as good as the pickled fries from Al's Place these were quite delicious.  They lightly sprinkled the fries with picante dust to give it a bit of a kick.

3) duck banh mi sandwich

We both ended up getting the duck banh mi sandwich as our main.  It comes with a papaya/jicama salad.  The duck banh mi sandwich was quite good.  Along with the duck there was some pate, carrots, and jalapeño.  The staff removed the seeds from the jalapeño, so there was a small kick but not too much.  A good sandwich.

Along with some drinks, tax, and tip we ended up paying about $90 for lunch.  It's a bit pricey for lunch, but I'm glad we stopped into try it.