Optimistically Cautious

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Europe Day 2: London

One of my best mornings occurred that second day, if not only because I wasn't operating on anyone else's schedule. I took my time with a morning shower, relaxed with a cup of Twinnings tea, and even watched a bit of a cooking program on BBC. I had to check out by 11, and to be honest, I wasn't too keen on departing from Ramada Encore - it was drizzling outside, and I think it's always a bit disconcerting when the journey to Point B is unfamiliar.

I sucked it up eventually, and dragging my 42.8lb suitcase behind me and with the help of a very nice Tube attendant and newspaper vendor (they must hate tourists), made it to Tottenham Court Road and then the Jesmond Hotel, where the girls would be meeting me later that afternoon. As we would discover over the course of our trip, the Jesmond really was a diamond in the rough - clean, reasonably priced, offering a generous breakfast and within walking distance of a few different Underground lines, I would highly recommend it to anyone looking for accommodation in London.

Our quad room on the main floor of the Jesmond

A picturesque British block

After dropping off my luggage, I wandered over to the British Museum, only a ten minute walk from the hotel. Free to the public (much like most other museums in London), it's a wonderful place to spend a day, though one could easily take two weeks to read all of the informative plaques. And though this may be sacrilege to some - I would, without hesitation, choose the British Museum over the Louvre any day.

British Museum foyer

"Throne of Weapons," a chair made from decommissioned weapons after the end of the civil war in Mozambique

Before returning to the Jesmond, I waited out the rain in the Starbucks across the street (yes, that made it two visits in two days). Not understanding my request for a "tall mild," it turns out their slang for a regular brewed coffee is "tall drink." Other differences include their liquid additives - only whole and skim milk are available (probably influenced by the tea drinking population). I still wonder how many Londoners frequent Starbucks on a regular basis - though with 471 locations throughout Britain, their appetite for gourmet coffee must be pretty high.

It was still pouring as I made my way back to the hotel. The weather over the last two days had such sporadic qualities, not quite being able to decide what it wanted to be - shifting between sunny and cloudy the day previous, and today, just pouring. I was glad that I had arrived on Friday to much nicer conditions.

Typical English weather forecast (but as we would find out, this would be the wettest year on record since rainfall began to be recorded in the 1700s)

Annie, Janice and May all arrived in one piece, and we set out to Regent Street for a bit of shopping and dinner. After some running to London's Visitor Centre to pick up our London Passes, I directed the girls to Topshop. I ended up buying a fall coat, my most expensive purchase over the three weeks, as well as a purse for my Mum - both items having travelled Europe and then some upon return to Edmonton.

For dinner, we ended up at Ozer, a Turkish restaurant, after a man who was presumably the owner enticed us inside with the promise of a free pizza. He delivered what in Canada would be considered a large pizza, so on top of that, each of us ordered an additional dish. My spinach and cheese pizza was certainly filling, but I think I would have preferred a less overpowering topping - perhaps arugula or basil.

Spinach and Cheese pizza

Well-fed, we called it a night and readied ourselves for a full day of sightseeing.

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Friday, June 29, 2007

Europe Day 1: London

In retrospect, I'm very glad I decided to take the day off from work. I wasn't terribly rushed, but having the option of taking my time to pack last-minute things (including a styrofoam cooler of food intended for my UK cousins, courtesy of my Mum), and in general relax before driving to the airport was a good way to start my three-plus week vacation.

My whole family was there to see me off, and before I knew it, I was on the plane. It was an older model (especially when compared to the jet Annie, Janice, and May took the next day), and thus I didn't have the luxury of a television screen to myself. I was, however, lucky enough to have an empty seat next to me, fantastic for an eight hour flight. Though we reached London Heathrow on time, the airport apparently didn't have a clear runway for us to land on, and we were forced to circle above for an hour.

I was told I may be met at the airport by family of mine currently residing in London, and sure enough, my cousins Dick and May, her son Justin, and my Aunt pulled me aside, and the whirlwind rush that I would come to associate with them began. I felt bad, having made them wait an extra hour, but I can tell you that we certainly made up for lost time. We seemingly sprinted for the Underground connection, and Travelcard in hand, we took the Piccadilly line straight to Park Royal, listed on my hotel website as a nearby station. As my cousins were not familiar with this part of non-central London, it took us nearly an hour to find our way to the Ramada Encore West.

It was a sparkling new hotel, but all of the reasons why I booked with Encore West in the first place (safety, affordability) seemed not to matter in the face of its inaccessibility. Still, I must say, it was a really nice room, probably even better than the four-star hotel in Amsterdam we stayed in at the end of our Contiki tour.

My first night's accommodation - swanky, eh?

After dropping off my luggage, my relatives took me for a late dim sum in Chinatown. Unlike the pushcart norm in Edmonton, all of the dishes at the restaurant were made to order. For that reason, the food tasted better than the fare I was used to.

After lunch, we walked to the nearby Trafalgar Square where, lo and behold, Canadian tourism officials had set up a "Canada Day in London" celebration, complete with flags, beer, bison burgers, and entertainment.

Canada Day in Trafalgar Square

My cousin May poses by the Edmonton hockey exhibit

"Hey, it's that girl" (Tanya Kim) from CTV

It started to drizzle a bit, so we waited out the rain at a Starbucks in Leicester Square. Starbucks is expensive in London (around £1.70, depending on the location), and they charge around 30p more for food meant to be eaten in the shop itself. Of course, for a little bit of home (I admit to feeling a bit of a Hallelujah! moment when I saw the familiar green and white logo), money isn't really an obstacle. Leicester Square is also a great place for people watching - so many of the after-work crowd were chatting away on their cell phones.

They then led me to Piccadilly Circus so I could explore on a surface level some of the shopping London has to offer. Topshop was the biggest draw for me, after lusting after their seemingly affordable merchandise for years in magazines. On my first visit, it didn't really blow me away. With the pound conversion, most of their things were pricier than I expected, and much too trendy for my wardrobe - something I would continue to discover with most of Europe's fashions.

I Tubed back on my own, via a Central Line station much closer than Park Royal (thank goodness), and wound down early in an attempt to get myself on London time. That night, it felt as if I had been up for two straight days, and somewhere during that time I had been transported to an alternate universe where it didn't quite look like North America, but for some reason everyone spoke English (at this point as well, I should mention that the novelty of British accents was starting to wear off).

My friends were to join me the next day, so there was much to look forward to.

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European Experience 2007

"The use of travelling is to regulate imagination with reality and, instead of thinking how things might be, to see them as they are."
- Dr. Samuel Johnson

That quote comes from the Travel Journal I brought with me and used throughout my European vacation. I found as I filled up its pages, I tried to keep it with me whenever possible, as the document became more and more valuable to me - the photos taken along the way are only half of the story.

Though much of these upcoming blog posts will be a direct transcription of my thoughts recorded at the end of each day on the trip, I'm sure I will not be able to avoid including some observations coloured by my time there as a whole. But to this, I say, all the better, as even looking back now, it is becoming more difficult to separate the individual days and nights, and in some cases, even the cities and countries.

As uploading the photos from my hard drive to Blogger is an exceptionally time-consuming process, I gave in and started a Flickr account out of necessity. Not all of my pictures are on that page, but most of the interesting ones, and certainly all that I will reference, can be found there.

I look forward to your comments, and as always, thanks for reading!


Thursday, June 28, 2007

Off to Europe!

My last post before I leave - I hope to return with stories, pictures, and of course, good eating experiences! Have a good summer everyone!


Monday, June 25, 2007

The Cooking Chronicles: An Evening of Food and Wine

Since beginning this (food) blog last year, my interest in the culinary arts has not been contained to cooking and eating out alone. Due to repetitive exposure to Giada de Laurentiis and Ina Garten's entertaining strategies, I had embraced the notion of hosting my own dinner party for some time. I had purchased paper invitations on sale at the end of last year, but didn't yet have a large enough repetoire of recipes under my belt to really build a menu from. Over the last six months, however, I've experimented with enough dishes to put together a coherent meal, from appetizer to dessert. And though I knew June would be a busy month, I also acknowledged that if I didn't throw the party before I left for Europe, it would likely not happen at all, at least not in the immediate future.

So the planning began about three weeks earlier, with "save the date" e-mails to four of my friends (plus Mack, who had agreed to host the party at his house). A week after that, I mailed out the invitations, following rather formal conventions gleaned from the web, including, for example, in place of the standard "RSVP," the phrase "Favour of reply is requested." As well, to mark this as a special occasion, I specified a semiformal dress code (in my post-party research, I stumbled upon a great website that offers free, printable invitation templates, most with a whimsical theme - worth checking out if you're in a creative pinch).

As for the menu, as I am of the belief that I was Italian in a previous life, planned to cook several of Giada's recipes. I was really interested in making individual servings of dishes wherever possible, not only to make the food easier to serve, but for presentation purposes. And with the dessert, for example, its 'make-in-advance' nature is perfect for such an occasion.

Panna Cotta with Fresh Bertries

So on Sunday, at Mack's house, with the vinaigrette and panna cotta made the day before, we got to work cleaning, decorating, and preparing the majority of the food. With careful planning and a well-stocked fridge, it wasn't as taxing as I had anticipated.

Table set-up

Toasting the almonds for the salad was a straightforward procedure, and really brought out the flavour of the nuts. Also, I cheated this time around in using canned orange pieces, but I promise to learn how to segment an orange next time. We did have a bit of trouble with moulding the parmesan frico cups at first, but with Mack's "ingenious" idea of using a plastic water bottle in place of a glass, we were able to move on to the tomatoes.

Mixed Greens with a Citrus Vinaigrette served in a Parmesan Frico Cup

The inclusion of a splash of tomato juice and decrease in the amount of breadcrumbs (as observed on my first try) made a noticeable difference to the spinach-stuffed tomatoes - the side as a whole was more moist and tasted better.

Spinach Stuffed Tomatoes (before baking)

Individual gratin dishes (from Dollarama!) made the penne with four cheeses easy to serve, and though we didn't miss the gorgonzola we left out, it probably would have thickened the sauce just that little bit. I did, however, like the hint of tomato mixed in with the cream (and yes, Mack even offered each of the guests "fresh ground pepper" to go with their pasta).

Penne with Four Cheeses

As for the "fire-raising" moment of the night - in hindsight, I should have warmed the focaccia round with the tomatoes in the 375 degree oven and not alongside the pasta in the 500 degree oven. My apologies to my friends who were too polite to not consume burnt bread...

Overall, the timing of the dishes worked out quite well. A wonder what planning ahead can do when setting up a multiple-course meal. Also, Mack's wine picks did much to set a more mature tone to the evening - a Naked Grape Chardonnay and a bottle of White Zinfandel. I didn't get to try the Zinfandel myself, but from what I heard, it accompanied our pasta nicely. Lastly, though the table was a bit small for six people, meaning that we had to serve each person individually instead of utilizing a shared platter, it may have been better as each of the guests then felt taken care of.

Ready for dessert!

I had planned for an early 5:30pm start to accommodate one of the guests, so the sun was still quite bright when we began to eat. As the night progressed, however, there was a moment while we were having dessert, close to dusk, candles flickering, with jazz playing softly in the background that I really appreciated the moment and the small accomplishment that (Mack and) I had completed.

Mini Linzer Cookies with Organic Strawberry Jam

But to give credit where credit's due - I could not have pulled this off without Mack's help - not only gracious enough to lend me his home, but a hand in everything from music selection to table setting to food to clean up.


I found that cooking for six was manageable, with perhaps eight being the upper limit to maintain sanity. I would do it again, but in a different form - backyard BBQ bash, dessert night, wine and cheese evening - but likely not for a while. I'm happy to check off "throw a dinner party" off my list of 43 Things.

Group shot

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Tidbits: Notes from Edmonton's Epicurean Scene

  • St. Albert's outdoor farmer's market kicks off for the season on Saturday, July 7. Though the City Centre market takes first place in my books, St. Albert runs a close second.
  • On the heels of Moon Garden, another Vietnamese restaurant has opened up in town. Phobulous (yes, that really is the name) has set up shop at 8701 109 Street. The text underneath their sign claims "authentic" cuisine, but really, with a name like that, who will take them seriously?
  • Watch out for Essence Organic Tea Bar (10011 102 Avenue). Though still under construction, I'd be curious to see what their conception of a "tea bar" is (the idea in my head is an amalgamation of Steeps and an Asian bubble tea shop).
  • Arts on the Ave Edmonton Society is a grassroots initiative with a goal of revitalizing the Alberta Avenue area. One of their major projects - a coffeehouse - will have its grand opening this Friday. Named The Carrot, after a quote by Paul Cezanne ("The day is coming when a single carrot, freshly observed, will set off a revolution."), the cafe will showcase art, music and other performances. Definitely a cause to get behind - bravo for this achievement!

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Sunday, June 17, 2007

Waiting out the Rain: Flavours Modern Bistro

My sister and I ducked into Flavours Modern Bistro (10354-82 Avenue) for a late lunch this afternoon in part to refuel but to also wait out the rain. And wait we did.

I haven't been back to Flavours since a bad experience a few years ago with a very rude waiter. It was a shame too, as their applewood smoked chicken was divine, but couldn't override the bad taste left in my mouth from horrible service.

On this rainy grey Sunday, however, I was willing to put aside past grievances and give the bistro another shot. Their lunch menu looked inviting, and with plates ranging from $8-12, the prices were reasonable. The interior hadn't changed since my last visit - creaky hardwood floors, dark furniture and banquets, sleek mirror-lined walls and classy chandeliers. With sultry jazz music playing in the background, it really was a shame that the restaurant was nearly empty - perfect dining atmosphere cannot be devoid of tinkering wine glasses and hushed conversations.

My sister ordered the feature BLT sandwich and a caesar salad. I opted for the succulent-sounding breast of chicken sandwich (with pancetta bacon, lettuce, tomato and smoked provolone) and a bowl of Brazilian spiced black bean soup. Despite a table of four being our only other company, the food took over twenty minutes to arrive. Perhaps moderately acceptable if we had ordered well done steaks, it was inexcusable in this instance. My sister was also rather miffed that they didn't offer freshly ground pepper or refill our water glasses once throughout our meal. The sandwiches themselves were on the small side, but I found the chicken tender as it should have been. The soup turned out to be the unexpected better deal - slightly spicy and chock full of beef, vegetables, and lentils, I would have gladly given up my sandwich for another bowl of soup.

Though not as negatively memorable as my last experience, our lunch at Flavours didn't stand out as particularly good either.

Restaurant interior

Breast of Chicken Sandwich with Brazilian Spiced Black Bean Soup

BLT with Caesar Salad

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Shoe Shopping: Flat-out Difficult

Bettina can attest to how many shoe stores we traipsed through while in Montreal last year after being bitten by the "flat bug." Still, due to my more than picky nature when it comes to shoes, I only managed to find a pair I bought as a last resort, and one that I really haven't worn all that often.

With my upcoming Europe trip, I decided a pair of black flats would be indispensible, as I'm planning on a wardrobe to bridge the line between touristy-comfort and casual chic (I never like looking out of place, but as we will be traveling with a tour group, I'm sure I won't be able to escape the "foreigner" label, but I'll do my best). Of course, I'm sure by the time I get there, facing 40 degree temperatures, all careful planning will go out the window, but at least I had some good intentions, right?

Anyway, after a few weeks of shopping, I settled on Steve Madden's Twillo flats, purchased on sale at Da Vinci's in Edmonton City Centre. I figure they're dressy enough to pair with the skirts and dresses I'm bringing along, but casual enough to go with my jeans and capris as well. I've worn them a few times so far, and though the leather soles tend to crunch rocks underneath rather loudly, they've proven to be quite comfortable. The real test will be the state of my feet when I return, so stay tuned!

Steve Madden Twillo flats

On the topic of shoes - during one of my last trips to Gravity Pope on Whyte Avenue, the manager talked about an exciting event taking place in late June. Having moved all of their clothing merchandise to a separate location two blocks away, the newly shoe-only store found itself with a lot more space. So much space that they decided they could act as a venue for a play about shoes. Vancouver playwright Elaine Avila's Shoe! asks the question, "Can self-worth be purchased through the perfect pair of shoes?" I'll be finding out the answer next week. More information at TixontheSquare.

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Picnic in the Park with The Copper Pot

Doug had a great idea for his farewell lunch at work - instead of the standard sit-down meal at a nearby restaurant, he wanted us to take advantage of having the beautiful Ezio Farone Park just across the street from our building by having a picnic together. So ordering sandwiches from The Copper Pot (101, 9707-110 Street), we gathered on the grass under absolutely perfect weather.

Besides their regular lunch menu (which can be viewed on their revamped website), The Copper Pot also offers three sandwiches, one wrap, and a soup & salad combo available for take-out only. Priced at $8 each (sides extra), the selections are on the steep side, but considering its downtown office building location, the expense is understandable. I ordered the Ham & Cheese Panini (blackforest ham and brie on grilled French bread) and fries. As I enjoyed my sandwich with good company and for a special occasion, I didn't mind incurring the cost for something easily duplicated at home for much less, but on a regular day, I doubt I'd order it again.

So - thanks Doug for a great Friday afternoon, and all the best with your future endeavours!

Ham & Cheese Panini and fries

Doug shows off his Pulled BBQ Beef Sandwich

Violet does the same

Evania and Michael pose with their respective Ham & Cheese Panini and Greek Salad Wrap (this is starting to feel like a Copper Pot advertisement)

Doug's turn to give a speech as Anna looks on

Group shot

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Globe & Food

I am not sure how this degenerated into a food blog, but I can't stem the tide, so it continues...

Globe & Mail's "Globe Life" section is dedicated to the culinary arts every Wednesday, featuring recipes from Canadian celebrity chefs such as Rob Feenie and Michael Smith, food trends, and national restaurant profiles (albeit with a bias towards the big three - Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver).

Today's edition had two juicy stories:

  • Canadian cheese - Canada's first ever production of di buffala mozzarella (cheese made from the milk of a buffalo) began recently. I've personally never tried it, but given the tastiness of its bocconcini relative, I'm sure its freshness can't be beat.
  • Iron Chef, live - inspired by the popular television show, a new restaurant in Montreal will aspire to replicate the creativity and tension of Iron Chef right in front of customers. In Duel, diners will be asked to select a dish prepared by one of the two competing chefs, and vote on their favorites at the end of the evening. It's an inspired concept.

There was also mention of a new "u-pick" farm. Traditionally reserved for fruits and vegetables, this concept has now lent itself to beef! That's right, for about $3 a pound, a farm in Saskatchewan will let customers browse their cattle, select one of their liking, and have the meat butchered and sent over within a few weeks. Having never spent any time on a farm, I don't know if I could deal with the process of actually choosing a cow to have it slaughtered. I'm not a vegetarian, but it's definitely easier when you don't have to look into the eyes of what you'll be eating.


"Too many Wangs prompts China to re-examine naming tradition"

The above was a headline in today's Edmonton Journal. Gotta love a paper with a sense of humor.

A similar article from the Daily Telegraph here.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Whimsical Cupcakes: the Store

This really doesn't deserve an entire post on its own, but I don't think I can hold onto this announcement until I have enough material for a "Tidbits" entry.

Whimsical Cake Studio, of Downtown Farmer's Market fame, is opening up its store on Friday, June 15! Located at 14910-45 Avenue, grand opening festivities will be taking place some time in mid-July. Having sampled cupcakes from Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver, I can confidently say that Whimsical offers some of the best treats available in both Alberta and BC.

Needless to say, I'm craving a cupcake right now...

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Sterling Awards Nominations

This year's Elizabeth Sterling Hayes Awards nominations were announced last week. Recognizing the best in local theatre, the nominees span the gamut from risky productions (Catalyst's Frankenstein) to heartfelt dramas (Theatre Network's Closer and Closer Apart) to experimental, edgy material (Citadel's The Pillowman).

I don't feel as if I am in a position to pick the winners, as I haven't seen all of the shows listed (Frankenstein would have been hit or miss with me, but I regret not seeing it for all of its critical acclaim), but I am happy to see some names singled out that I did have the pleasure to watch on stage this season. James DeFlice and Patrick Howarth were great in Closer and Closer Apart and Dreamland Saturday Nights, respectively, and I can't disagree with Andrea House's nomination for her supporting role in David Belke's The Raven and the Writing Desk because she is just that good. Lastly, what can I say about 10 Days on Earth that I haven't already? Simply amazing.

Teatro La Quindicina is glaringly absent from the ballot (both in productions and their family of actors), but as with most entertainment awards, comedies are as a whole ignored in favor of the dramatic. Maybe next year.

Winners will be announced at the gala on June 25.


Monday, June 11, 2007

Food-Related Notes

  • See Magazine released their "Best of" results for 2007. The results are skewed towards independent eateries, as expected, but I'm a bit sad to see that Blue Plate Diner didn't make the top three of any category. I disagree with the voting of Garage Burger and Barb & Ernie's as Best Burger and Best Breakfast, respectively, but I had to laugh with the inclusion of "Tuxedo Cake" in the Best Dessert category (I guess it wasn't clear to voters that editors were looking for a place noun and not a thing...)
  • Speaking of things, how cool is this modified-typewriter-turned-waffle-iron?
  • On that note, as seen in the Globe & Mail, how about a glass that literally leaves flowers in its place? (Not worth $30US each though, in my humble opinion.)
  • Via Eat Drink One Woman, I found out about the upcoming Gourmet Institute New York weekend retreat - two days of informative seminars, professional demonstrations, and of course, amazing food! Two sessions that caught my eye: "Eat the Web: Blogging's Effect on the Food World" and "The Restaurateur Versus the Critic."
  • Second Cup must have recently revamped their menu - their non-fat drinks are now prefaced with the word "skinny." Really. I wonder how many guys would be caught dead asking for such a girly-sounding modification?

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More "Sex & the City" Movie News

Furthering a story I posted about late last year, Sarah Jessica Parker confirmed that a movie version of Sex & the City is in the works:

"Speaking on TV show Entertainment Tonight, she said, 'This is a very complicated puzzle to put back - not for the reason that people speculate about because as far as I know all of the actresses want to be together again for this movie. Somehow in my brain I think the timing is fortuitous because if we had done it years ago... we couldn't have done it now. I'm hopeful and very excited about it.'"

The IMDB page for the movie has the release date pegged to be 2008. I'm not holding my breath until someone other than Parker speaks about the film (in particular Kim Cattrall, who's rumored riff with Parker was the reason a movie immediately following the television finale was quashed), but based on both her and Kristen Davis' lack of upcoming projects, I'm sure any work that would push them back into the pop culture spotlight would be a welcome assignment.

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Sunday, June 10, 2007

Tidbits: Notes from Edmonton's Epicurean Scene

  • One of the city's oldest continuously operating restaurants has closed. The Silk Hat, established in 1912, has shut down due to the planned demolition of the building in favor of a new tower.
  • Vue Weekly printed a retraction last week for writing an incorrect story that El Rancho was closing. Mistakes happen, but I hope El Rancho doesn't lose any business from that unfounded rumor, especially since they are tucked and hidden away from the sight of a main thoroughfare.
  • There's a new cafe on the block: Axis Cafe (10349 Jasper Avenue) just had their grand opening on June 1. With positive press already, and a storefront that opens up onto the sidewalk, it may be worth a visit when you're looking for a cup of joe on a warm summer night.
  • CBC Centre Stage in Edmonton City Centre is presenting a series titled "Food Fight: Local vs Global" this week. Events of interest include restaurant cooking demos from 3:30-4PM with local chefs (June 12 - Home Fire Grill; June 13 - Wild Tangerine; June 14 - Bacon), and a celebrity taste off on June 15 to determine whether local, organic, or supermarket produce is tastier. Drop by if you're in the area!

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Saturday, June 09, 2007

Film: "Shrek the Third"

I just returned from Shrek the Third, the movie we watched to cap off Michael's farewell evening.

As with Pirates, though of less importance, I could only vaguely remember what had taken place in the movies prior. Perhaps because of lowered expectations going in, I did enjoy this third installment. Justin Timberlake, the new voice addition, was pitch perfect as the whiny, adolescent heir (who, in Doug's opinion, resembled Corey Feldman - you be the judge), and crowd favorites Donkey and Puss in Boots were their usual smile-inducing selves (they really could have their own movie). I will also admit to enjoying the princesses coming-of-age sequence (Snow White could be the X-Man who controls animals!). And with the exception of the Frog King's twice-over fake-out deaths, there were enough lighthearted, humorous moments to keep me entertained.

Though I didn't originally intend to catch this sequel in theatres, I didn't regret doing so.


I Heart H & M

I was first exposed to H & M while in Toronto on vacation about this time last year. They had a great selection of both work and weekend wear for a reasonable price, and while some eschew their quality, I find their "disposable fashion" made of better material than its counterparts Forever XXI and to some extent, Zara.

I've visited the West Edmonton Mall location twice since it opened, and have been floored both times. In direct competition with Forever XXI, H & M trumps them in every category: the staff are numerous and friendly, the fitting rooms are innumerable, and the tills are speedy. Their merchandising by style is helpful as well, and I haven't found it too difficult to locate duplicates of orphan items that have caught my eye. Lastly, I have come across some great deals - I picked up a short-sleeved wrap dress shirt for $20 less than the C'est Sera version I saw a few weeks ago.

So if you needed a reason to brave the crowds at WEM, you now have it.

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Friday, June 08, 2007

The Cooking Chronicles: Quesadillas

Guided in part by a recipe I picked up at Save-On Foods a long time ago, Mack and I made Quesadillas for supper yesterday.

We decided to try Maple Leaf's Fully Cooked Chicken Breast Strips, though after opening the package, I wouldn't recommend it. It was just enough for two quesadillas, and when an entire rotisserie chicken could be purchased for a few dollars more, even the ease of thirty-second preparation wasn't worth the expense. In addition to the meat (salami was our other base), we added provolone and marble cheeses, tomatoes, green pepper, green onion, and (for Mack) sour cream. After a light brushing of olive oil and 15 minutes in a 400 degree oven, they were done.

Crispy, filling, and a great way to use up leftover meat and raw vegetables, the quesadillas are a quick lunch or supper idea that's definitely worth a try.

Quesadilla (cool shot by Mack)

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Film: "Knocked Up"

I went to watch Knocked Up with Mack late Thursday afternoon. In the weeks since it premiered, the movie has received surprisingly positive coverage, and not just because of its directorial connection to the also-critical darling The 40 Year Old Virgin.

A story about two strangers deciding to try to make a relationship work after the titular consequences of a one-night stand, Knocked Up was well-done on many levels. The situations, dialogue and acting all seemed so natural, quite an accomplishment on the part of the filmmakers. Nothing (except possibly the ending, but more about this later) seemed staged, and the conversations and crises faced by the characters would be ones expected in the real world. Katherine Heigl put in a strong performance, but I thought (echoing many critics) that supporting cast members Paul Rudd and the hysterically energetic Leslie Mann stole the show. As for the ending, while I can appreciate the desire to cap a supposed "romantic comedy" with a happy conclusion, I am of the opinion that the real struggle for Ben and Alison would begin when they realize that their relationship must exist outside of the bubble created by a child (an assessment that the hopeless romantic Mack disagrees with).

Knocked Up is a good, funny alternative to the bloated summer blockbusters in theatres now.


The End of an Era: Mr. Rice Retires

I took the afternoon off from work on Thursday for a trip back to my alma mater McNally High School. When Mack and I found out that Mr. Rice, our principal during our school years, was retiring, we decided we needed to do something to express our gratitude for his support throughout our time as students, Students' Union presidents, and after graduation.

So a few weeks back, I bought one of those large farewell cards with the intent of collecting as many alumni signatures as possible. With Mack's tireless milking of Facebook as a connectivity tool and flexibility in meeting up with alumni, and my sister Felicia's current McNally student status, the card was filled to the brim with well wishes from graduates as far back as 1997.

Though I've returned on numerous occasions since moving on, it was never as formal as it was in this instance. Megan, at present teaching at McNally, invited Mack and I to their year-end staff meeting. It was a bit surreal walking in upon her introduction, and I could swear that a few of the teachers gasped at the sight of us - probably just an unexpected "blast from the past." Mack expressed the unquantifiable impact Mr. Rice had on him, we presented him with the card, and I gave him a hug. And yes, Mr. Rice re-told the story that would have a better ending if I were actually teaching at the moment.

The attachment that I have to my high school, the teachers, and the principal may be strange, but I never forget that the fond memories I accumulated during those years were because of the people and the leadership(!) I came into contact with, and the confidence they had in my abilities that in many ways encouraged me to continue my work in the community.

I am happy to report, however, that this isn't the end of Mr. Rice's public service - he will be running to be a school trustee next year! Best of luck with the election, and thanks again for all of your guidance and support.

Megan, Anna, Mr. Rice, Mack and I

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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Theatre: "East of My Usual Brain"

After dinner, Mack and I watched the new charmingly-titled Stewart Lemoine play East of My Usual Brain at the Varscona Theatre. From the website:

"East of My Usual Brain sets forth the utterly unexpectable tale of young bookstore clerk Eric Thaw (Ryan Parker), whose perceptions of life in an unremarkable city undergo an extraordinary transformation when he accepts a position as the research assistant to tempestuous European author Istvan Madaras (Ron Pederson). Istvan has himself been completely untethered from his moorings after a chance encounter with the alluringly pensive Bianca (Belinda Cornish) one afternoon in a public garden. Inspired, amused, and occasionally horrified by this romantically tortured pair, Eric must broker a resolution in a suddenly unfamiliar landscape that grows more peculiar and more beautiful with every scene."

Let me just preface this review with the advice to never attend a show tired. That said, it was no fault of the play itself that I missed most of the first half due to, well, a lack of caffeine in my system. From what I did gather, it was a typical Lemonian-exercise of a verbally shy courter, with Pederson for the first time cast not as the yuppie bystander, but as the starry-eyed would-be Romeo. Pederson did great, pulling off both a mustache and accent without falter (his silent struggle with low table seating in the tea shop was a notable comedic moment). Parker was a seamless addition to the Teatro family (as this was his Teatro debut), and I can see why Lemoine reacted with a "You–get in the car" comment after seeing Parker's spoof of the 80s duo Wham. My only lukewarm reception was towards Cornish - noticeably older than Pederson, her inclusion in this role appeared mainly to be because of her English accent. She was as upright, mysterious, and transcendent as her character demanded, but I wasn't entirely sold that both Eric and Istvan would fall for her. Moreover, whoever's decision to allow Bianca the number of costume changes that would rival an Oscar host's should regret it - Maggie Walt's designs were flashy and ultimately distracting. Bianca's wardrobe superseded the focus that should have been on the words.

The set deserves its own praise as well - both beautiful and functional, the red lanterns hung behind the paper screen were a nice touch. However, I am still wondering whether designer Mike Takats deliberately chose to use low tables, despite its alignment with Japanese and not Chinese culture.

All in all, it was an enjoyable play, with the expected poignant metaphor (in this case, excuse my mangling, but of the orientation necessary in love and in life), charming characters, clever dialogue, and laughs.


Mass-Produced Comfort Food: Chianti's

My sisters and I used to play a game called Edmontonopoly, a spin-off of the popular board game substituting local companies for properties up for sale. Two such properties were restaurants Chianti's and Fiore's, and I remember always wanting to go there in typical childhood idealization fashion. Well, I've been there numerous times since, but it has almost always been underwhelming.

Mack and I chose Chianti's (10501 82 Avenue) on Tuesday for its proximity to the Varscona Theatre (where we were heading to see a show afterwards) and its Pasta Frenzy deal, when over forty of their pasta dishes are priced at $7.99.

It was surprisingly busy, with about a ten minute wait for a table, despite the weather being drizzly and cloudy. With the number of large parties inside, it seems Chianti's is hard to beat in terms of accommodating all types of tastes and budgets. Their menu never ceases to amaze me - though I would imagine the A + B + C ingredient substitution formula is likely heavily utilized, I'm sure the cooks in the kitchen don't necessarily appreciate the variety. As an unfortunate result with such menus, quality is most often the first casualty, and Chianti's is no exception.

Mack ordered the Alla Marchese (veal filled noodles with pepperoncini in a cream pesto sauce), while I opted for the Cannelloni (rolled pasta stuffed with veal, vegetables, topped with mozzarella then baked in tomato sauce), if not only to compare it to Moxie's version. The wait for the food was long, despite taking the large crowd into consideration, but was tapered with our cesar salad and baked onion soup appetizers. The pastas themselves were all right - my cannelloni was on the dry side, and I preferred the sweetened tomato sauce found in Moxie's equivalent to the more tart sauce used by Chianti's.

Chianti's isn't a bad choice (especially dining al fresco during Fringe season), but in particular during Pasta Frenzy, you get what you pay for.

Insalata Di Cesare (Cesar Salad)

Zuppa Di Cipolla (Baked Onion Soup with Cheese)

Alla Marchese


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Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Cooking Chronicles: Spinach Stuffed Tomatoes

As a practice run before my (fingers crossed) dinner party this month, I decided to make Giada's Herb Stuffed Tomatoes for my Mum's birthday potluck this weekend.

Guided by many user comments that indicated that parsely was too strong, I substituted the recommended spinach instead. But who knew spinach was so hard to wash? Besides that challenge, I found the task of hollowing out the tomatoes more time-consuming than anticipated, and likely ended up with less pulp simply due to my ill-experience.

The final product was all right - the dish was presentable, but I received mixed reviews on the amount of provolone I included. As well, the breadcrumbs made the filling a tad dry, so I'd be sure to pour in some of the excess tomato juice (seeds strained out, of course) next time.

Not a bad vegetable side dish, but one I'll have to play around with a few more times to get right.

Spinach Stuffed Tomatoes

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"Studio 60": Post-Mortem Commentary

When NBC announced their fall line-up a few weeks ago, it was no surprise that Studio 60 wasn't among the returning programs. The flailing Aaron Sorkin vehicle had been touted to be one of the must-see shows of the 06/07 roster, but ended up not only with weak viewership, but critical dis-acclaim for reasons I've touched on before.

Though they axed it, the network decided to show the unaired episodes starting May 24 that were originally shelved. After watching both "The Disaster Show" and "Breaking News," I think NBC made the right decision in pulling the plug - the quality really was heading down the tubes.

Something about Studio 60 just didn't feel right, or as right as its West Wing predecessor. Whether it was the casting (Kari Matchett as an Ainsley Hayes/Amy Gardner hybrid last episode just didn't work for me), the political situations (the abduction of Tom's brother in Afghanistan felt hollow; Justin Walker's redeployment to Iraq in Brothers & Sisters had a stronger resonance), or the storylines (the B-plot about the importance of ratings was exhausting to follow), the show had degenerated into an all-out vanity project for Aaron Sorkin.

The show did have its moments (Allison Janney as herself, and Sarah Paulson was a light throughout), but I'm of the opinion that Studio 60 had to die in favor of better projects Sorkin has yet to dream up.


Like "Quizno's for pizza": Famoso Neapolitan Pizzaria

Having been introduced to Famoso Neapolitan Pizzaria (11750 Jasper Avenue) by Where Edmonton, Mack and I decided to give it a try on Friday. Claiming to produce authentic Neapolitan pizzas, training with the Associazione Verce Pizza Napolentana, an Italian organization dedicated to preserving the standards of "True Neapolitan Pizza," and using only imported Italian flour and San Marzano tomatoes, Famoso seemed like a good bet for quality food.

Upon reading the restaurant's description in the magazine, both Mack and I were expecting a dining room aligned with a European bistro - quaint decor, bustling but quiet - but instead, we got, in Mack's words, "Quizno's for pizza." While the self-serve seating and ordering at the counter concept was fine, the white booths and LCD TV seemed out of place, as was the baritone order announcer, who could easily be slumming as a nightclub DJ in the evenings.

That said, their menu was filled with a great selection of pizzas, sandwiches, and sides, making it difficult to narrow down our choices. In the end, I couldn't resist the classic Margherita (fresh mozzarella, fresh basil, cherry tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil), while Mack opted for the Siciliana (fresh mozzarella, fresh basil, Italian sausage, Italian ham and baked prosciutto).

Our orders were up fairly quickly (though celebrity spotting Edmonton Rush's Jimmy Quinlan distracted us a bit). The pizza crust was like none I'd ever had before - soft, chewy, and very much like fresh pita bread, it probably was better suited to being eaten as they recommended, folded as a sandwich. The pizza itself had a bit of a sour, tangy after taste, likely attributed to the uncooked sauce used. Lastly, I would have preferred roma tomatoes in place of cherry tomatoes (and really, it wasn't worth the extra $1.50 for the four tomatoes on my pizza). Mack was similarly underwhelmed with his dish.

Though most of their ingredients are imported, the franchise nature of Famoso ultimately cheapens the feeling of authenticity somehow. The pizza was decent, and I may return (in particular for their Nutella dessert pizza), but Famoso will not be replacing my delivery standbys anytime soon.



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