Optimistically Cautious

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Pre-New Year's Potluck

May hosted a party in celebration of the New Year last night, and though it was meant to be a potluck, she ambitiously wanted to prepare several large entrees just in case the food guests brought went the way of desserts (as is typically the case with such events). Shiney and I offered to come early to help her out with the cooking.

Besides meatloaf and roasted potatoes, a "Better Butter Chicken" recipe, courtesy of Reader's Digest, was on the menu. I haven't yet reached the stage where I am comfortable dealing with raw meat, so I was relieved to find out that May's Mum had already cooked and de-boned the appropriate amount of chicken for us in advance. Other than that, the instructions were really straightforward. This was my first time cooking with turmeric, and I must say, the aroma generated was fantastic (though from experience, it stains like crazy!).

Because this was a lower-fat version of butter chicken, the sauce wasn't as creamy as those found in traditional Indian restaurants, but it was still pretty good. Simmering the sauce over low heat for 15 minutes really allowed the flavors of the spices to develop and come through.

While I still have much to learn on the vegetarian side of things, I hope to one day be able to make such a dish again, from start to finish, on my own!

Better Butter Chicken


The Cooking Chronicles: Mini Quiches

For the last (hurrah!) potluck of 2006, I decided to go with a variation of my tried and true baked egg theme: mini quiches. My Mum recently bought a large box of small tart shells, and had only managed to go through a quarter of the box, so I was more than happy to help her use up the rest.

Following a recipe printed on the side of the box (not sacrilege if done right), I decided on mushroom and parmesan as the filling ingredients. From my past experiments with cheese in such dishes, I've found that cheddar and mozzarella don't quite provide the creamy texture that freshly grated parmesan does. And while I thought it unusual that the recipe called for a 1:1 quantity of eggs to cream (I substituted skim milk, as always), it resulted in a light-but-satisfying custard-like consistency for the egg.

Easy, and great as an appetizer, I will be making these mini quiches again soon.

Mushroom and Parmesan Mini Quiches


Friday, December 29, 2006

Delicious and Economical: Lorenzo's

In search of a late afternoon lunch today, I wandered over to Zuppa Cafe, but was disappointed to find out that they would be closed until January 2. They have one of the most inexpensive meals I have ever encountered in the city centre area - a bowl of hearty, homemade soup of the day and a side of baked pita chips for $3 - perfect for a light lunch.

Thus, I made my way to my reliable backup - Lorenzo's in Edmonton City Centre West (10025-102A Avenue). Though they recently moved from the City Centre East food court, they haven't changed the specials they offer. My staple in high school, they were not only affordable (a pizza, pasta, and drink combo for about $5), but also, the service has always been excellent. The woman who is a mainstay at Lorenzo's is always friendly, efficient, and sprinkles terms of endearment like "honey" in her speech, making me feel welcome and taken care of.

On this day, I ordered the small lasagna, which came to a measly $3. Though there was only one layer of cheese, there was enough pasta layers for a filling midday snack, rounded out with a generous topping of meat and tomato sauce.

Lorenzo's is a great place to go for a quick bite!

Small Lasagna

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CTV's Broadband Network

In November, CTV landed the rights to stream both The O.C. and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip on their Broadband Network site in Canada, available on-demand immediately after their respective television broadcasts. Full-length Studio 60 episodes are currently available on the NBC website, but only for American users.

I decided to try out this site on Thursday to watch an episode of The O.C. that I had missed. Broken down into five parts, each separated by a commercial for the release of the Superman Returns DVD (yes, shown four times), I found this a convenient, accessible way to stay caught up with one of my television favorites. Although I still prefer the comfort of my couch and larger-screen TV, I found the resolution crisp, the sound clear, and the streaming uninterrupted (no annoying "buffering" stops and starts). I also appreciated the fact that the shows were separated into sections, so I could easily find and rewatch just a moment of that particular episode online.

I am a firm believer in appointment television, but now and again, when I slip up, I am glad the Broadband Network is available to support my addiction.


Jack Vettriano

Those who have visited me know that my office is sparsely decorated. Unless my Akeelah and the Bee promotional spelling flashcards count, I do not have any personal mementos on display. Something I have gotten rather attached to over the last year, however, is my 2006 Jack Vettriano wall calendar.

Ever since I saw a reproduction of "The Singing Butler" a few years ago, I've sought out Vettriano's works for their representations of relationships, romance, mystery, and intrigue. From the elegant couple waltzing under the moonlight in "Dance Me to the End of Love", to the playfully titled "The Shape of Things to Come", which depicts an obedient husband trailing his wife, to the smooth, suave rat pack in "The Billy Boys", each painting encapsulates a model of escapism. I love the fluidity and movement of the figures, each captured omnisciently, mid-moment. My favorites are those where the characters have their backs turned to the viewer - I find it easier to utilize my imagination when the spirit and mood of the picture and not detailed facial features are emphasized.

One painting featured in the calendar, "In Thoughts of You", actually spurned some debate amongst a few women in my office. A woman, dressed in black and stiletto heels, is profiled sitting with a wine glass, gazing out a window. My interpretation was that she had pulled herself together for a night out on the town, but before venturing outside, needed to take a minute to mourn her very recent heartbreak. My coworkers had a range of story opinions as well: from overcoming the emotional carnage garnered from a one-night stand, to a simple but necessary moment of quiet meditation and self-reflection. I'm not an art connoisseur in the least, but I find art most enjoyable when dynamic discussion is inherently encouraged. While some would say Vettriano's "paint by numbers" style makes such consideration superfluous, I favor the grounding in a reality I can recognize.

In October 2005, it was proven that Vettriano, a self-taught artist, copied the well-known figures from a sketch book. Though critics didn't need any more ammunition to fuel their dislike of his designs, they used this as further evidence that Vettriano shouldn't be venerated. In this I have to agree with the Wikipedia entry: "His talent lies in placing his figures in an unusual narrative context." It's not who he paints, it's how he paints them.

In any case, I am currently on the lookout for the 2007 Vettriano calendar, so I can enjoy his art for another year.


Thursday, December 28, 2006

"The Hills": Season 2 Announcement

I stumbled across the announcement today that the second season of The Hills is due to start airing in the States on January 15! All four of the original cast members, LC, Heidi, Audrina, and Whitney are set to be back.

I tried unsuccessfully to locate the Canadian premiere date on MTV Canada. Their website is awful, and kept trying to stream videos and show clips as I browsed for information. I'm estimating though, that those living in the Great White North will get their Hills fix sometime in February. Let's keep our fingers crossed!


The Cooking Chronicles: Best-Ever Carrot Cake

Using a recipe from my trusted Better Homes & Gardens cookbook, I baked a carrot cake for Mack in celebration of his birthday. I haven't attempted to make a cake from scratch in some time, as I'm typically a Duncan Hines or Betty Crocker mix kind of girl. But as the recipe seemed straightforward, this was a reasonable challenge to overcome.

First of all, I never knew finely shredding carrots would be such a task. I ended up with orange everywhere (my nails still haven't returned to their original color). Also, the icing took longer than expected as well, as I had to gradually beat in about 5 cups of confectioner's sugar (that's where the stand-alone KitchenAid mixer would have come in handy).

Overall, it was fun to make. And might I say, much like the other dishes I've been experimenting with, creating something from raw ingredients really instills a sense of pride and ownership. Often it seems that the act of cooking itself, even without the promise of an edible product at the end, is reward enough. The food, as they say, is the icing on the cake.

*I will also take this opportunity to wish Mack a happy birthday, and to let him know that for one day only, I will relent in my dominance in the NHL2K7 shootout and air hockey challenges.

Best-Ever Carrot Cake, about three-quarters frosted


Small on Servings and Service: Rigoletto's Cafe

A few friends and I had dinner at Rigoletto's Cafe (10068-108 Street) on Wednesday night. Extremely accessible, this Italian restaurant was located just off of the Corona LRT line.

The dining room was a dark, European-style bistro that looked from the furniture, carpeting, and lighting as if it hadn't been updated since the late 80s or early 90s. Luckily, we were seated underneath one of the few spot lit tables, otherwise, we would have been eating over a single-flame candle and not much else.

Though I admit it was my fault for a) ordering the small versus the large plate, and b) not ordering a less mundane dish, I was disappointed with my tortellini in cream sauce – its equivalent at Chianti's would have been several dollars cheaper and of similar quality. I had pasta-envy just looking at my friends' rigatoni, penne, and lasagna, which were easily three times the size of my selection. Earlier, when we had put in our orders, I had asked our server if we could have separate bills, to which he scoffed, and ultimately didn't even provide me with an answer. I couldn't help but get the feeling that my question translated into my ridiculously small serving.

For dessert, I ordered a latte and the chocolate mousse. My coffee was all right (I find I much prefer the sweetened, less authentic varieties available at chain coffee shops), while the mousse had obviously been pre-made and refrigerated - much too rich and dense, the consistency was closer to pot de crème than whipped mousse.

Lastly, the service was spotty throughout the night. They were extremely short staffed, with three servers attending to the entire restaurant (which was surprisingly busy for a downtown location on a random Wednesday). Although our waiter was quite attentive initially, by the end, we had to signal not only to order our entrees, then dessert, but also to request and pay for our bill (which wasn't, by the way, separated). I suppose Rigoletto's could be the kind of place one dines at for an evening of uninterrupted conversation, but I would have still appreciated the occasional check-in from a friendly server.

With the abundance of restaurants I have yet to try, I would be hesitant to return to Rigoletto's Cafe right away. But I do believe in second chances, so though the service received a failing grade from me on this round, I will allow for a retest in the future.

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

BrightNights 2006

Mack and I visited one of the so-called Edmonton Christmas "traditions" last night: BrightNights at Hawrelak Park. With over 550 lit displays, this was the largest festival in its history. I had been to this event with my family once before, but my memory is faint.

This time around, it was slow going; poor Mack burned through an unknown amount of gas. Funny how this family-friendly attraction doesn't garner criticism from those against fossil fuels. But I guess when profits are directed towards charity and not Big Oil, such pollution is socially acceptable.

I couldn't pick out all twenty-five new displays, but I did recall a few from my past visit, including Santa's reindeer-drawn sleigh and the Jaws-reminiscent shark (oddly positioned this year in the "Sugarplum Village" section). The animated ones were definitely my favorite. In particular, the archer near the entrance and the squirrel in the forest.

I can't see how this could be an annual pilgrimage unless you had small children, but it wasn't a bad way to spend a holiday evening. I'd be more in favor of returning for the one-day pedestrian-only event in early November; it'd be a good opportunity to pro-actively work off the calories that would undoubtedly be gained over the season of eating.

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Monday, December 25, 2006

Film: "The Pursuit of Happyness"

After a traditional Christmas morning of opening presents together, my family and I went to watch The Pursuit of Happyness at South Edmonton Common. I saw the commercial for this movie a few weeks ago, and had intentions of watching it sometime this season.

Starring Will Smith and his real-life son Jaden, and inspired by a true story, Pursuit follows Chris Gardner, a San Francisco-based medical supplies salesman. One fateful day after meeting a rich stockbroker on the street, he decides to apply for and accept an unpaid internship with a brokerage firm in an attempt to secure a better future for himself and his son. The movie focuses on his rags-to-riches journey, and in particular, Gardner's struggle to prove himself amidst the struggle to support his son with very little time and means to do so.

The title comes from a misspelled wall mural next to the Chinatown daycare where Chris dropped his son off every morning, and is one of the many details drawn from the book on which the movie is based.

Overall, I thought the movie did a good job of chronicling the challenges Chris faced - from the breakdown of his relationship with his son's mother, to the lengthy daily commute between the firm, daycare, and homeless shelter, and most strikingly, the heartbreaking scene where Chris is forced to sleep in a train station restroom. At the same time, the movie was too long - my emotions felt like an overused punching bag - how many times can you realistically empathize with a character before wanting it all to just end? Worse, the concluding payoff was proportionally not worth it; after the rollercoaster ride of over 120 minutes of pain, the director didn't even allow the audience to celebrate with Chris in his triumph for any longer than five minutes. His jubilation seemed tacked on, an afterthought.

Moreover, the camera was shaky throughout the movie, with far too many close-ups. Though the filmmaker may have wanted a grittier aesthetic more closely aligning itself with the bumpy ride Chris was in for, it made the movie difficult to watch, and not because of the plotline. I also found Chris' voiceovers unnecessary. The movie was punctuated with "This part of my life is called..." which may or may not be a motif rescued from the book, but to me, they jolted me out of the action on screen.

Will Smith was well cast though. He definitely has the charming, well-spoken quality that Gardner likely personified. But as good as the older Smith was, his son took the cake. In his big screen debut, Jaden exemplified an unassuming, curious, and loving son, a perfect mirror of innocence that any father would try to protect from the harsh realities of the world.

I also appreciated the props from the 80s. Sometimes I think it might be more difficult to dress a set only ten to twenty years removed from the present, as opposed to a period piece set in Victorian England, for example. In this movie, they accomplished the escapism design via interior decoration, wardrobe, and advertising (remember the Campbell's, "Umm, umm, good" posters?).

So, it turns out happyness = wealth. Well, sort of.


Sunday, December 24, 2006

Reactine, Christmas generosity, and Ezio Farone Park

A few things before Christmas:
  • I love Lucky the Golden Retriever as much as the next person, but my allergies typically start acting up before the two hour mark after contact. Encouraged by Mack, I took some Reactine before heading to Jane's house for the potluck last Friday, and it worked wonders. Why hadn't I thought of it before?
  • Shopping on Saturday with May at Edmonton City Centre, I stopped in Mayfair Shoes to ask about a waterproof spray for my Kenneth Cole boots I bought in November, as the salt was not being kind to my shoes. The two store clerks recognized me, as I am in the store quite frequently, and when asked which product would work best for my boots, they offered me a can for free! They even gave May one too! Random acts of generosity, any time of year, are very welcome.
  • Lastly, I took a few pictures at Ezio Farone Park, located near the north end of the High Level Bridge while waiting for a friend on Thursday. The Park is across the street from the building I work in, but I never take the time to enjoy it. Perhaps my pictures may encourage you to go out and appreciate what downtown Edmonton has to offer.
The High Level Bridge and LRT track

A trail at dusk

The Legislature in the background

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Saturday, December 23, 2006

Modern Simplicity: Holt's Cafe

On Saturday, May and I headed to Holt's Cafe , located on the second floor of Holt Renfrew (10180-101 Street), for brunch.

We had both been wanting to eat there for ages, but it had to be a Saturday, as both of us wouldn't have been able to get away for a lunch out of the office on weekdays, and Holt's Cafe was closed on Sundays. In a recent Edmonton Journal piece, the reviewer cautioned all diners to make reservations early to ensure space availability, so about a week earlier, I called for a 12pm table-for-two.

When I arrived, the hostess immediately led me to a table by the window. Definitely one with a view, the glass overlooked the main floor of Manulife Place, and was positioned so it took full advantage of the sunshine filtering in from Manulife's numerous skylights. Crisp white table linens contrasted nicely with the painted red walls, accented with the soft glow emanating from rectangular screen lamps. The minimalist decor scheme was chic, classy, and elegant, and an example of how a simple two-toned red and white color palette could be maximized to produce a warm but sophisticated design.

The cafe was moderately full, with patrons consisting mostly of mature couples and groups of ladies lunching. After getting settled, I nearly attacked the waitress for coffee, but she didn't flinch at all, and even brought me cream without being asked (and of course, kept the refills coming). Unfortunately, there was no separate brunch menu, but I noticed that most of my fellow diners were choosing lighter meal options like salad or soup. Though dismayed because they had run out of Vegetarian Quiche, I decided to try the shrimp alternative anyway. May opted for the Whole Wheat Spaghetti topped with a curious Indian-inspired Marsala Sauce.

My portion was appropriately sized, and I wasn't disappointed with the quiche. Light and fluffy, with a good flavor balance between the shrimp and the egg, it was the perfect brunch selection. Served with seasonal greens and a side of orange poppy seed dressing, the salad proved to be good companion to the quiche. My friend said her pasta was okay and not too spicy, but she would have preferred to have ordered my dish.

For dessert, we opted for the Lemon Tarts. They proved impossible to eat gracefully, as the filling was not viscous enough to adhere to the pastry shell. Though a tad too sweet for my taste (I prefer pastry cream), it wasn't bad.

It was a wonderful dining experience, and while it may be some time before I can fit Holt's Cafe into my lunch schedule again, I will be back to try their other entrees.

Dining room

View from the window

Menu and place setting

Daily Quiche with Seasonal Greens

Whole Wheat Spaghetti with Marsala Sauce and Vegetables

Lemon Tarts

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The Cooking Chronicles: Farmer's Casserole

Continuing with the season of potlucks, Mack and I decided to jointly contribute a homemade farmer's casserole for a friend's party. Though the thought of a casserole made me feel like I should don an apron a la Donna Reed or June Cleaver on Leave it to Beaver, the recipe was very simple - essentially an assemble-and-bake dish, slightly easier and requiring less clean up than a quiche.

We layered hash brown potatoes, diced cooked ham, grated cheddar cheese and chopped green onions in a rectangular dish, poured the egg and milk mixture over top, then put it in the oven. Comparable to the quiche, the most difficult thing we found was to wait for it to bake, and to decide via the "knife through the centre" test whether the egg had cooked enough. Though I think sixty minutes would have done the trick, the knife still came out slightly moist at that point, though when we finally decided to take it out the egg thankfully continued to set out of the oven.

The finished product was quite good, and I can see why the description for the dish lists it as a "hearty" selection - two servings and I was comfortably full for the rest of the evening. Next time, we thought mixing the filling ingredients (ham, potatoes and some of the cheese) before spreading it out in the pan would give the casserole a more coherent flavor, otherwise the cheese especially acts just as a topping and not as much of a "glue" as it could have. Also, one could potentially cut down the fat by using diced boiled potatoes instead of the hash browns.

Anyway, it was another enjoyable cooking experience!

Farmer's Casserole


Thursday, December 21, 2006

Coffee Shop Character: Sugar Bowl

After pho, Bettina and I were on the hunt for dessert. Our first choice was Leva Capuccino Bar in the University area, but it turns out to have shut down! It's currently being renovated under a new name.

Thus, our second choice, thankfully located nearby, was the Sugar Bowl (10922-88 Avenue). I have quite a biased opinion of this cafe, with nostalgic affection connected to my first visit there. It involved a meeting with online (yes, online) fans of Billy Boyd, just prior to his appearance at the Garneau Theatre a few years ago (and no creepy pedophiles showed up).

The Sugar Bowl could be considered a younger, edgier relative of the Blue Plate Diner. I have always loved the decor - exposed brick, aged hardwood floor, roughly sanded tables, pendant lighting. On the downside, I have never been impressed by their service, as it has consistently proved to be mercifully slow, but on most occasions, I am willing to overlook it for its cozy cultivation of conversation.

When we arrived at 8, the room was about half full. By 9:30, however, it was packed, with groups of diners even patiently awaiting a table at the bar. We also found that as the night progressed, the lights were dimmed and the music volume was increased, with the song list switching from rock in favor of more techno-flavored tunes, making the atmosphere more in line with that of a bar.

Keeping it light, I ordered a vanilla hot chocolate and a Sugar Bowl Soufflé (made with Callebeaut chocolate). The hot chocolate came with a bit of a wait, and was lukewarm, but had a creamy, smooth vanilla flavor. The soufflé, on the other hand, took ridiculously long to make. When it finally arrived, more than thirty minutes later, the waitress apologized, saying that the order was tardy because the first one "collapsed." Seeing the final product, I wondered what the previous creation looked like. Overturned on the centre of a square plate, and dressed with a shake of powdered sugar, I wasn't sure what to make of it. I had never before had soufflé, so I was not a seasoned judge, but to me, the consistency was a cross between a pudding and a half-baked cake. The cocoa flavor was rather weak, actually, and I could have done with more tart confectioner's sugar to supplement the dull, uninspired taste.

I can't say I won't be back, but it would likely be to sample their entrees instead.

Vanilla Hot Chocolate

Sugar Bowl Souffle with Callebeaut Chocolate

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Quick but Dirty: Pho Hoa

On Thursday, Bettina and I went to Pho Hoa (9723-106 Avenue) in Chinatown for dinner. It has been years since I dined here, the last time being sometime in high school right after its grand opening. Nothing negative resonates with me from that experience, but this time, I’m sorry to say it left quite the impression.

First of all, trying to enter the restaurant was an ordeal in itself. There were several doors, all but one marked with faded, handwritten signs, or sealed shut with packing tape. Once in the dining room, we were abruptly seated with a curt nod and menus deposited at a random booth - the kind of turn-your-back service seemingly common at Chinese ethnic eateries.

I must say - the owners really let the place deteriorate. The seats and floors were dirty, and table legs were steadied with wads of paper napkins. Lighting was poor, with peripheral seats near the windows left in the dark with poor placement of overhead fluorescent bulbs. And though it must have been the same way all those years ago, I had forgotten about the communal chopstick and soup spoon jar. Still, with one glance at the rest of the place, the utensils begged for a personal scrubbing with the tea, Hong Kong style.

The waitress clearly had a low English proficiency. When asked, with the aid of hand gestures, about the thickness of the steak, her reply was "No." Similarly, a clarification about the vegetables included in one of the dishes was left unanswered as well. Needless to say, ordering by number came to be quite handy. I did find the menus amusing though, with pictures and descriptions about the types of soup bowls offered; essentially, it was "pho for dummies." I ordered the Pho Bo Vien (noodle soup with meatballs), while Bettina chose the Pho Tai (noodle soup with eye round steak).

One positive - the food did arrive lightning quick, definitely in less than five minutes. The portion size was noticeably smaller than Pagolac's version, but even more egregious - the soup base was nearly flavorless. My friend had to resort to hoisin sauce as an additive. To me, the broth had an odd aroma that I couldn't quite place. And no, I don't think it had anything to do with beef.

We had chosen Pho Hoa on a whim. Not surprisingly, we won't make that mistake again.

One shining example of a table in need of repair...

Pho for beginners!

Pho Tai

Pho Bo Vien

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Glenora Bed & Breakfast Inn

After work on Wednesday, I headed to High Street to finish some of my Christmas shopping. One stop I made was the Glenora Inn Bed & Breakfast. On the corner of 123 Street and 102 Avenue, it is located in a high traffic area, and I know that I've passed it by too many times to count.

Walking in, I was led up a winding flight of stairs to a small reception area on the second floor. I inquired about a gift certificate, and the clerk patiently explained how the packages worked, and pointed out the differences between the suites. She ended up even giving me a tour, and opened up a traditional B & B and small and medium studios for me to take a look.

I must admit, a part of me felt like I had been transported to Stars Hollow, the fictional town of Gilmore Girls, and location of Lorelai's Dragonfly Inn. The Glenora was so quaint, charming, and friendly that I wanted to stay there.

I hope my gift recipients like the present, but at the very least, I've discovered another Edmonton treasure that I will make a point to return to.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

University of Alberta Holiday Shindig

A few weeks ago, one of my coworkers alerted me to a University of Alberta alumni gathering to take place at LUX Steakhouse & Bar. We quickly RSVP-ed when we found out there were free drinks involved.

A group of us headed down to LUX after work today, and at the door, we each received a coupon redeemable for either a "Golden Bear Martini" or "Peppermint Panda Hot Chocolate" (cheesy, I know). Once inside, we found ourselves rubbing elbows with the chic happy hour business crowd.

I was lucky enough to get to try out both drinks. The Martini, green and lime-flavored with what must have been heaping teaspoons of Kool-aid, was quite tasty, and made me long to return on a Martoonie Thursday. I thought they copped out on the alcohol, as I couldn't taste it at all, but my coworker set me straight on that (you know what that means...). The hot chocolate was great as well - rich, but not too sweet, though the peppermint flavor was a bit lacking.

There was an article in "ed," a weekly magazine in the Edmonton Journal on Saturday featuring an interview with Chloe Chalmers, the University's first ever "young alumni" coordinator, and organizer of tonight's shindig. She stated that she has three goals, "To increase the awareness amongst alumni of the Alumni Association and what and what we offer; to increase services available; and to increase awareness amongst students." Events in the new year include debt management and investment seminars.

While true the University may indeed want to provide more support to recent graduates, I'm sure the activities they arrange may be less altruistic than at first glance: ply alumni with free drinks, and they may end up feeling more fiscally generous come collection time. Or, offer financial management seminars, and alumni may have greater savings in their retirement years, and thus more disposable income to donate.

While I can't say I'm willing to give back to my alma mater just yet, I will accept any and all future invitations to free parties.

Golden Bear Martini

Peppemint Panda Hot Chocolate

Monday, December 18, 2006

Let's Make a Gingerbread House!

As is the case with pumpkin carving, it seems I only ever partake in gingerbread house decorating at work. But I'm not complaining.

Unlike more organized departments, my group scrambled to complete the project by the 4:30pm deadline this afternoon. As such, it wasn't as well thought-out as it could be, but I still think we did a bang-up job.

Funny how I feel more like a kid sometimes at work than at any other time during the day.

Our creation!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Deliciously Affordable: New Asian Village Lunch Buffet

A few girlfriends and I went to the new Strathcona Square location of New Asian Village (9808-34 Avenue) to try out their lunch buffet. I'm not a huge fan of buffets (unless I'm not paying) as I typically cannot eat enough to make the cost worthwhile. Thankfully, today's meal was a mere $9.95; pennies for pounds of food!

Having only been open for three weeks, the restaurant still looked brand spanking new. Accented with Indian antiques, the dining room decor is subtle but effective - dark woods, red drop lamps, and corner booths draped with organza fabric. The buffet area is well designed, occupying one side of the room, and pointed to an obvious directionality. Hot dishes stewed in basins with sliding lids, and were the most functional yet stylish containers I've ever seen at a buffet.

There were over fifteen hot dishes available, including naan bread, saffron rice, chicken kadai and beef curry. I can't remember the name of my favorite dish, but it used the same sweet, flavorful sauce as the butter chicken. Although a few curries were too spicy for my taste, the quality of the food was excellent, and even more amazing when the price is considered.

For dessert, I tried the rice pudding, but quickly put my serving aside, as there was a rather strong hint of ginger mixed in. The mango custard, on the other hand, was quite nice - light, and had a nice cooling effect after ingesting a variety of strongly seasoned meats.

The service was great, though I would caution the waitress about immediately telling about the "plumbing problems," and out-of-order washrooms, which happened as soon as we sat down at our table. As our glasses of drinking water were delivered soon after, we weren't sure if we should trust the water quality (we're paranoid, what can I say?).

Despite the bathroom hindrance, New Asian Village is definitely worth a look. Be sure to check out their lunch and dinner ($14.95) buffet specials before it's too late!

Cozy booths (with low, sunken cushions)

Table setting

Coconut display

Buffet set up

My (first) plate

Rice pudding dessert

Mango custard


Theatre: "Oh Susanna!" Christmas Special

On Saturday night, Mack and I watched the Oh Susanna Christmas Special at the Varscona Theatre. I had been looking forward to this since Eros and the Itchy Ant in November, so I'm glad I was actually able to make it. From the website:

"Oh Susanna! is Edmonton's own Euro-style variety show, playing monthly since 1999 in Strathcona's improv comedy hot-spot, The Varscona Theatre. Antics, music and spectacle abound, guided by international glamour-gal Susanna Patchouli (Mark Meer) and her co-host Eros, God of Love (Jeff Haslam). Watch as celebrity guests engage in sparkling conversation and high-spirited competition! Delight in the shenanigans of the Compania del Mambo! Thrill to the tunes of the Oh Susanna Jug Band! All this...and cocktails!"

I thoroughly enjoyed the show - it was an evening filled with lighthearted fun and laughs (Susanna came out in a forest green velvet mini-dress, announcing that she was, "A Christmas elf...who also happens to be a prostitute"). Meer and Haslam were fantastic as their alter-egos; both were quick witted and had phenomenal ad-libbing ability.

Susanna and Eros were accompanied by a large supporting cast, and in my opinion, they represented Edmonton's "Theatre All-Stars." There were appearances by Davina Stewart, Sheri Somerville, Jocelyn Ahlf, Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Celina Stachow (visiting from L.A.), Farren Timoteo, Dana Andersen, and my personal stage favorite, Andrea House. The who's who in attendance extended off-stage as well, as I saw Stewart Lemoine flitting about the theatre, and even now Vancouver-based Chris Fassbender in the crowd.

I definitely felt like I received my money's worth, as the show included many entertaining segments:
  • Cooking with "Girls on the Grill," where every member of the audience received a sample of turkey buttie, essentially the sandwich equivalent of a full turkey dinner: roast turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy and cheese, all contained within the confines of grilled bread (at intermission, there were glasses of "one arm punch" and eggnog available to drink as well).
  • The talk show element that discussed current events, after which I could not get the image of premier-elect Ed Stelmach-as-Muppet out of my head.
  • Several musical performances, including a beautiful rendition of "First Noel" by House, and a hilarious Wham! tribute of "Last Christmas."
  • A cute Stewart Lemoine playlet, Christmas in Patagonia, featuring Timoteo, brilliantly cast as "Toddler Jesus."
  • An interview with two Edmonton expats now living in Toronto, back to reprise familiar roles in A Christmas Carol at the Citadel. One of these men, Larry Yachimec, happens to be the star of the Westjet commercial as the clueless patron who required channel guidance from an observant stewardess (he did the laugh!). Obscure fact: the commercial was filmed in an airport hangar in Hamilton, Ontario.

My only negative comment was in regards to the burlesque performance, which seemed tacked on and out of place (I was even more horrified when I found out there were young children in the crowd...). And though I was disappointed with the lack of "The Game! The Game!", it provided me with an excuse to return in the new year.

There were many in-jokes for those in-the-know audience members (like the line spoken in raucous unison, "I don't want to go to jail looking like this!"), as well as numerous self-plugs for projects cast members were involved in. This I didn't mind, as part of the point of this production was to shamelessly lend support to other artistic endeavors in the community.

I can't remember the last time I had so much fun at a show. Though Oh Susannah! has been on for seven years, I still feel like I stumbled on one of the city's best kept secrets.

Christmas Potluck

I've been exposed to the concept of potlucks ever since I can remember, with family friend gatherings always centering around the communal sharing of dishes. Just this year though, my peers and workmates have chosen this as a constant alternative to eating out, particularly to celebrate the holidays. Though it's not exactly a sign of growing up, it is interesting to note that just a few years ago, the thought of holding a potluck with friends was foreign to me. I will, however, have to be careful not to overdose on the idea, as cooking may begin to be a drag.

Anyway, on Saturday night, I got together with a few coworkers for a potluck Christmas party, and might I say it was enjoyable. It seems that as long as the numbers are contained, the gathering can remain a personal event. And yes, the food was great!

Food! Food!

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Winter Wonderland at the Legislature

On a toque-optional night, a friend and I headed to the Legislature grounds to tour the holiday lights and decorations. Sadly, though I have been working in a building across the street for more than a year, I had never made the effort before Thursday to check it out.

Still, better late than never. We crossed over via the convenient pedway system, and found a beautiful spectacle. Away from the traffic, the festooned trees and the musical classics that streamed from mounted outdoor speakers made the square a world of its own. In addition to the Christmas lights, there were a few BrightNights displays and several lit ice sculptures, including a horse-drawn sleigh and a mini-version of the Legislature. People even took the time to build several snow people, hats and all.

I have never been to Central Park in New York, and I know Edmonton cannot compare, but the quaint charm of a quiet winter's night beneath holiday lights is magical. I invite you to explore the Legislature grounds this Christmas.

The Legislature from afar

Snow family!

Horse ice sculpture

Legislature ice sculpture

Legislature steps (where Ed Stelmach was sworn in as the new premier-elect just hours earlier)

BrightNights skiers

Giant Christmas tree

Dickson with snowfriend

Me with snowfriend

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

"Laguna Beach": Season 3 Review

I watched the season finale of Laguna Beach this evening, and couldn't help but be disappointed. Departing from the usual half-hour format, this episode was an hour in length. They should have stuck to a thirty minute time limit, as the content ended up stretched and drawn-out.

With the exception of two cast members, all other characters would be back next season to finish off their senior year in high school, so it seems the editors did their best to frame storylines as cliffhangers: the Tessa-Rocky-Breanna triangle; Alex and his ability to stay true to Rocky despite the temptation of college girls; and Chase's choice between his band's future and a diploma. I find it rather odd and voyeuristic in many ways, as unlike a scripted show, Laguna's audience will essentially be waiting for life to happen to these people, as opposed to anticipating what writers might decide to plot.

Also, unlike vulnerably honest Lauren, or wickedly entertaining Kristen, Tessa didn't function well as the show's narrator. Nicknamed the "wet blanket," Tessa was often whiny, indecisive, and not much fun to watch. Cameron, the show's male lead, never measured up to Jason's player ways or Stephen's romantic ideals, and thus wasn't able to act as a stabilizing pillar either. Without a strong emotional centre, Laguna as a whole suffered a downturn in quality.

I found this finale to be less aurally manipulative than past seasons as well, due to the use of a more rock-based soundtrack. I wonder if this was a conscious effort to push the "maturity" level of the show as the audience grows up as well (assuming a shift from pop music can represent such development).

At the very least, I do like the structure of the seasons, with the episodes punctuated by timely school events: winter formal, spring break in Cabo, promposals and prom, graduation, and the start of summer. Within the chaos of teenage drama, the predictability of these occurrences is much appreciated.

I am optimistic for Season 4, but in the meantime, let the countdown to Season 2 of The Hills begin!

Christmas Buffet: Sutton Place Hotel

This afternoon, my organization held it's annual holiday party. As was the case last year, our lunch was held in one of the meeting rooms in the Sutton Place Hotel (10235-101 Street), with access to the Grande Ballroom where the main buffet was set up.

At $26.50 per person, it may seem pricey on the outset, but considering the type of food available, and the upscale elegance of the setting, it is fairly reasonable. The menu included roast turkey, baked salmon, beef tourtiere, and a variety of cold seafood platters. Although the spread was similar to last year's offerings, I do believe the quality had much improved (granted, the mere act of conjuring up superlatives to describe this year's lunch may have colored my perspective slightly). In particular, I found myself favoring the cheese perogies and carved ham. For dessert, I chose a slice of chocolate mousse cake (incorrectly labeled "double chocolate"), and as Rachel Ray would say: "Yum-o!"

Props to my coworkers who had created a Christmas-themed Jeopardy game to follow our meal. It was incredibly well put-together, with questions sampling Yuletide songs, pop culture, and charades.
Overall, it was a fun and relaxing way to spend an afternoon away from the office.

Table setting

Buffet line up

My plate!

Chocolate mousse cake

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Power of Blogging

Two of my blogging-inclined friends informally challenged me when they found out that I had started a blog of my own. The first was to maintain this blog for at least three months. The second was to reach a post count of three hundred. Well, I'm over halfway to the first milestone, but still two hundred and fifty shy of the second, so I have miles to go before victory can be declared.

I'm not sure if it's my inherent nature to compete, or the excitement born from a new project, but I find myself having to consciously check my blog at the door. What I mean is that in my quest to document the new, unknown, and yet to be discovered (particularly in the culinary world), I feel like I'm living to blog, when it really should be the other way around.

As someone still clinging to her discman while iPod gangs reign supreme, I'm shocked at the speed of how this new-to-me technology has surpassed my good sense.

But if the first step to fixing a problem is admitting that it exists, then I'm well on the road to recovery. I hope.


I couldn't in good conscience post about Oscar and not about our first non-aquatic pet, Friend.

A small grey, sweet-tempered rabbit, Friend was our family companion for many years. He stood on his hind legs to greet us, had an early habit of running circles around those he wanted to show affection to, and loved to cuddle and settle comfortably in laps.

We tried to let him enjoy our fenced yard as much as possible in the summer. Many lazy afternoons were spent chasing him around the backyard, watching him dig holes with glee, or snapping pictures as he lounged around on his stomach. Besides carrots, fresh strawberries and bananas were his favorite treats.

I do miss having a rabbit around the house. It has been over a year since Friend passed, but I haven't been able to bring myself to get another yet, and Oscar's a handful all on his own.

Wherever you are, Friend, I'm sure there is an abundance of grass, dandelions, and carrots to keep you happy!


Friend indoors.

As relaxed as can be.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Grinch in Seattle

Over the weekend, officials at a Washington airport decided to dismantle their holiday displays. From the Seattle Times:

"The airport managers ordered the plastic trees removed and boxed up after a rabbi asked to have an 8-foot-tall menorah displayed next to the largest tree in the international arrival hall. Port of Seattle staff felt adding the menorah would have required adding symbols for other religions and cultures in the Northwest, said Terri-Ann Betancourt, the airport's spokeswoman. The holidays are the busiest season at the airport, she said, and staff didn't have time to play cultural anthropologists."

The rabbi isn't to blame in this situation, as he apparently just wanted to "add light to the season," not create another controversy during the already hyper-politically correct "winter festival."

I mean, I don't personally mind using "holiday celebration" in place of "Christmas," but having to eliminate images, images many consider secular and representative of the season as a whole to begin with, is another issue. I even know someone who was requested to replace a picture of a Christmas tree with a "non-denominational snowman" on a company publication a few weeks ago.

As gleaned from the above article, I think the U.S. Supreme Court has it right: "Christmas trees can be secular symbols if they are not part of a religious-themed display." It's a tree. Just let it go.

Film: "Cars"

I watched the animated Disney/Pixar feature Cars yesterday. I initially stayed away because I remember the movie had been quite poorly reviewed, but I think it may have been unfairly judged.

The capabilities of computer-generated animation continue to amaze me: Cars is simply beautiful to look at. Stunning vistas, "how'd they do that" realism with leaves and dust, and unique details that make it a Pixar film (there were Volkswagen Beetle-shaped flies!).

Plot-wise, the movie involves a solid story for children about the importance of teamwork, sense of community belonging, and responsibility to others. There was even a message about remembering to slow down and to exit life in the fast lane once in a while. My friend and I had to roll our eyes, however, at the attempt to educate audiences about the decay of small American towns that were bypassed with the construction of the Interstate (yeah, we are heartless bastards).

The main voice talents didn't stand out, except perhaps Paul Newman, who was perfectly cast as the wise mentor Doc. There were quite a few celebrity cameos as well, with the likes of Jay Leno, Mario Andretti, and even Michael Schumacher lending their voices to car-shaped caricatures of themselves (speaking of the cars-as-people equation, my friend and I wondered how new cars were produced in this world. Is this how hybrid cars came into being?).

All in all, Cars is fun, family-friendly entertainment that complements the rest of the Pixar canon.

Unremarkable and Without Identity: Kelsey's

My friend and I went to Kelsey's (3203 Calgary Trail Southbound) on the southside for dinner last night. We wanted to go someplace casual, and Kelsey's was a compromise between my pick (Blue Plate Diner), and his (Earl's).

Kelsey's is part of the Cara Family of food services, which also includes Second Cup, Milestone's, Swiss Chalet and Harvey's. This was my first time in this particular chain, and when asked to describe it, my friend remarked that the restaurants have a remarkable resemblance to Boston Pizza. After eating there, I would have to agree. But whereas, for example, Homefire Grill had an apparent identity crisis, Kelsey's simply has no identity.

The main difference between the two (besides Howie Mandel's overly obnoxious television spots) is that Kelsey's' "your neighbourhood bar & grill" tag automatically gears it towards adults, while BP's "you're among friends" is more all-around family friendly. My assessment is also supported by the decor in Kelsey's. Dark, and not as well-lit and inviting as the neon-colored, Hollywood-postered Boston Pizza, it evoked a lethargic atmosphere more suited to twenty-four hour operations like Denny's. This particular location seemed to showcase its lounge as well, as the main door opened up to reveal an elevated bar, flanked by two separate, smaller dining rooms on either side.

The menu had the requisite new-age salads, pastas, sandwiches, and grill items that are par for a casual dining course. I will say, however, that their "complete classic meal" was quite a steal - an appetizer, entree, and dessert for a few dollars more than the regular price of a main. I couldn't pass up such a deal, so I ordered the Balsamic Chicken (two boneless chicken breasts marinated in garlic and spices, grilled and topped with a balsamic garlic cream sauce, served with garlic-mashed potatoes and vegetables), and a cup of broccoli cheddar soup to start. My friend opted for the build-your-own Chicken Fajita.

Our food arrived after an abbreviated delay, served by a waitress that reminded me of Kristin Chenoweth, all kinds of bubbly and grown-woman cute. My friend's fajita came with much fanfare - a large platter containing, among other things, a sizzling plate of sautéed onions, bell peppers, and chicken. Four tortilla wraps didn't seem like enough, but my friend didn't complain. My soup was better than average; it was nice to see the serving topped off with fresh cheddar. On the other hand, the chicken was nothing to write home about, especially now that I've experienced 4th and Vine's fabulous hazelnut garlic rub. The potatoes were a little on the runny side, and though the vegetables were good, steamed zucchini and broccoli shouldn't be the best part of an entree.

We split my last course - the chocolate marshmallow truffle (chocolate truffle with marshmallows on a cookie crumb crust with white and dark chocolate, topped with real whipped cream). It's a shame I was still sick, because the combination of truffle, crushed cookie, mini marshmallows, chocolate sauce and whipped cream was a Goldilocks dessert - not too sweet, but just right.

It's hard to know if I'll be back at Kelsey's, because I was left with absolutely no lasting impression. It would be difficult to recall this restaurant in times of hunger.

Restaurant interior

Chicken fajita

Broccoli cheddar soup

Balsamic chicken

Chocolate marshmallow truffle