Optimistically Cautious

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Another Chain, Another Disappointment: Applebee's Neighbourhood Grill & Bar

It was a sad Thursday indeed when Bettina and I couldn't come up with any more inspiring southside eateries than Applebee's (10390 51 Avenue). But as we both hadn't been there before, it wasn't a total loss, as we are always up to try new restaurants.

This particular building has a history of failed establishments attached to it - changing hands from The Cheesecake Cafe to Maxwell Taylor's to EMW and now to its current tenant. I hadn't been to EMW, so I'm not sure how much of the interior remains from the previous design, but for a "neighbourhood grill & bar" (a tagline suspiciously similar to Kelsey's might I add), the decor is quite sleek - dark wood, large vases, spot lighting. I hate to say it, but it's almost nicer than the menu allows at face value.

Like Kelsey's and Ricki's, the casual, family-friendly menu at Applebee's boasts an unsurprising variety of sandwiches, burgers, and pastas. I had to laugh at our over-eager server (who was probably not more than 13 years old), who introduced, with karate-chop flare, their featured "Irresist-A-Bowls." Though tempting, I bypassed the specials and chose the Three Cheese Penne (mozzarella, provolone and parmesan cheeses top off a rich mix of penne pasta, Italian-seasoned grilled chicken, diced tomatoes, fresh basil and Alfredo sauce), while Bettina ordered a Chicken Sandwich.

The wait wasn't unbearable, but by the time our food had been delivered, most of the patrons had cleared out - at this rate, I wondered if we would be seeing another "For Lease" sign soon. As for our entrees, the portion sizes were unforgivably small. Perhaps it was my oversight to order pasta, but I couldn't help but think that for a mere $2 more at Olive Garden, I would have had access to unlimited salad and breadsticks; or at Denny's, for $4 less, I'd receive twice as much food. Applebee's might offer "healthy" portion sizes, but somehow that seems like the optimistic point of view.

In my quest to try as many restaurants as possible, I can't just overlook the chains. That said, these generic, no-concept chains haven't had a good track record so far.



Three Cheese Penne

Chicken Sandwich

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

TV Notes

  • By the end of summer, I get so used to being without appointment television that I can already feel the regret when I return to my old ways come the onslaught of season premieres. There is one show I am currently watching on a regular basis, however - The Hills season 3 began airing a few weeks ago. Three episodes in, I do think Spencer is being edited somewhat unfairly, and is not being given the opportunity to respond to the questions he has been asked in certain scenes. Of course, with his immature outburst about Lauren at the close of "Meet the Parents," I don't pity him too much. TelevisionWithoutPity has started to recap the show, if anyone is interested (as much as I enjoy The Hills, I can't imagine having to summarize it).

  • Prison Break premieres its third season on September 17, but I was able to watch quite a bit of the first episode already (unfortunately, the video doesn't seem to be available any longer). It looks promising, but not as nail-biting as when the characters are on the run.

  • A show I stumbled upon this summer is The Next Food Network Star. Besides featuring all of my favorite television chefs (Giada! Bobby!), it provides viewers with a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how multi-faceted the cooking personalities have to be. They're down to the final four.


Monday, August 27, 2007

The Cooking Chronicles: Chocolate Amaretti Cake

After being repeatedly exposed to photos of Giada's Chocolate Amaretti Cake, I decided I had to try out the recipe.

Being without a large food processor, I wasn't able to follow the instructions to a T. After grinding the sliced almonds and amaretti cookies separately, I incorporated the morsels into the butter mixture by hand. I also ended up baking the cake for longer than the proposed time, and wasn't able to remove the finished product from the springfoam pan until much later, resulting in a slightly piecemeal presentation.

Not being a huge fan of almonds to begin with probably should have clued me into not making an amaretti-based cake, but somehow I didn't expect the entire cake to taste and smell like it had been dosed with artificial almond extract. My Mum claimed the texture to be like that of a brownie, but I think it was spongier than that, and not as rich or tasty.

Perhaps I messed up the measurements, but I likely will not be making this cake again. Anyone interested in half a box of amaretti cookies?

Chocolate Amaretti Cake

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Live & Let Fringe: Wrap-up

It was a year of many Fringe firsts for me, including the purchase of a Frequent Fringer pass, Die-Nasty, a deep-fried chocolate bar, and more plays than I've ever seen over the course of one festival. I also continued my role as a Fringe Evangelist, exposing two more newbies to the wonders of indoor productions (I'll do a better job of pre-screening plays for my sister though, else Felicia may never again return to theatre). And of course, who could forget the controversial changes to the ticketing system? It was high drama scrutinized in the media, in line-ups, and on stage.

Despite all of this, Live & Let Fringe left me unsatisfied. It could have been the concentration of great plays I saw at the opening of the festival (as opposed to this weekend), or the consistently grey weather throughout, but there was just something missing from 007.

For those who haven't gotten their fix, holdovers start this Wednesday. Although I'm disappointed that my pick of the Fringe, Madagascar, was left off of the schedule, I'd recommend The Power of Ignorance (which might play better to a larger crowd in the Arts Barns).

Only 355 days before the madness begins again - see you next year!

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Saturday, August 25, 2007

Live & Let Fringe: Day 10

After brunch, May and I headed down to the Fringe site to catch Chance Moments (Stage 11). One of the few productions I picked based on its written description in the program, the play catalogued a series of snapshots integral to the rise - and fall - of a couple's relationship. The script and direction themselves weren't bad (the use of everyday objects as scene starters was a nice touch), but the acting was simply not there. Kyle Schroter in particular was flat, emotionless, and couldn't grasp the concept of pacing and beats. The production ran ten minutes short of its advertised show length, indicative of an all-too rushed delivery, and the actors' inability to embrace poignant pauses. As a whole, the story was one that I have seen done better elsewhere (last year's 52 Pick-up, for example), and with anaemic acting, Chance Moments ended up being one of my weakest picks this Fringe.

To round out the festival, I met up with Dickson for his selection of El Muchacho (Stage 1). A musical primarily starring teens, the plot had been adapted from Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado (whatever that meant). A complicated "love story" involving an executioner, a blood-thirsty president, his guitaristo son, and a chica nicknamed Dum-Dum, the ninety minute production seemed to go on and on. There were also a number of offbeat pop culture references (including a snipe about Ryan Smyth) that Dickson didn't appreciate - he felt they distracted from the play as a whole. A few days ago, I came across a review of this play in the Journal, and although I didn't read the text of the article, the headline stuck in my mind - "Easy on the eyes, but often hard on the ears." Too true. Lead male singer John Tribiger, as the tale's Romeo, could not hold a note, and more often than not, was inaudible. Thankfully, the lead female, Katherine Carleton, could sing, but with her talent, it's a wonder how she was cast opposite Tribiger. All this being said, I guess I shouldn't be too hard on this group of kids; I can't imagine getting up on stage to act, let alone sing. So bravo for their effort...but the onus will simply be on me to avoid amateur musicals in the future.

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Only for the View: Riverside Bistro at Courtyard Marriott

Annie, Janice, May and I finally followed through on our year-long quest to eat at the Courtyard Marriott's Riverside Bistro (99 Street & Jasper Avenue).

Meeting for brunch on a grey Saturday, it wasn't the best weather to enjoy one of the best views of the city, but it did make us appreciate one of the last true summer weekends (Annie spotted some leaves on trees below that were already changing color). It was a bit chilly out, so we opted to eat indoors, but we made the most of it with a nice corner table with a great view of the river valley. The restaurant was surprisingly quiet, as we shared the dining room with only one other table. It was a sign.

I was disappointed that the Bistro didn't offer a brunch menu, but I made do with the Alberta Beef Dip and a side of lentil chicken curry soup. The dish was far from what I would expect from a hotel restaurant. The soup was good, and the beef was all right, but the bread had obviously been flash-thawed from the freezer, resulting in a soggy and half-baked bun. Janice and May found their food sub-par as well.

Moreover, service was sporadic throughout our meal, as our waiter was apparently also the only bartender available, and was therefore forced to go back and forth between the dining room and two weddings taking place at the hotel that afternoon. He did his best to juggle his tasks, but things were inevitably missed.

Thus, the patio, and not the food, ended up being the main attraction. It reminded me of (television reference) Lauren's Laguna Beach house, and with a built-in bar and awning, would function as a great venue for an intimate celebration.

So buyer beware - I would recommend drinks at Riverside under ideal conditions.

Dining room


Alberta Beef Dip

Janice's Grilled Pork Loin Burger

May's Maple Barbequed Salmon

Annie's Zinfandel Fruit Salad


View from the patio

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Live & Let Fringe: Day 9

Before lining up for our play on Friday night, I convinced Mack to join me in another Fringe first - a deep fried chocolate bar. Battered then fried, I can best describe it as a "corn dog gone wrong." Biting into it, the coating suggests that there was to be something of substance on the inside, while in reality, only a mass of melting chocolate greets you. In the end, the combination of salty, sweet and oily tastes didn't make for a very pleasing treat. Mack claimed that it was "disgusting," but said in between mouthfuls of the delicacy, I didn't believe him. For me anyway, this was both a Fringe first and last.

Mack picked Out of Pocket (Stage 7) as his play of choice this year, a story involving an expectant couple and a pair of homeless people who panhandled on the street in front of their apartment. With the help of a hat and a scarf worn multiple ways, Mark Jenkins and Vanessa Sabourin played all of the characters involved. Sabourin in particular (on the heels of her exceptional performance in Madagascar) seamlessly transitioned from one role to another, and was quite good as the comically nasal mistress Jesse. Mack found the plot to be a bit routine (going the "just desserts" path), and I had to agree. Not a bad play on its own, but compared to the productions I had watched earlier on in the festival, Out of Pocket was just average.

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Where Fish Come to Fry: Brit's Fish & Chips

I had heard that Brit's Fish & Chips (11603 104 Avenue) served deep fried chocolate bars, but in addition to that (and probably why most people would visit), prepared authentic food that lived up to its name. On Friday, I gave it a try.

The set-up is very casual, with an order counter, a giant menu tacked up on the wall behind it, and cushioned folding chairs. The Brits logo is plastered throughout the restaurant, though for such a small establishment (with only one other location), it's a little odd a branding force is in play at all. Still, the furnishings are comfortable, and the decorative kitsch of rustic signage actually works to create a welcoming atmosphere.

I ordered a one piece cod meal combo, which came with a drink and my choice of side (mushy peas in this case). The fish was likely freshly prepared, which explained the short waiting period. When the food arrived, I dug into the peas, only to discover they tasted like rehydrated lentils, and not fresh peas. It was my mistake in assuming the dish would be otherwise. The fish, on the other hand, was very good, with a light coating of fried batter that wasn't too dense or oily. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the chips, which were a tad too heavy for me (I prefer my fries crisp).

Brit's shuts down early, at 9pm (I had to wonder if it had to do with a lack of lighting sources in the dining room), so go early for their catch of the day.

Cod and chips with mushy peas

Two piece cod and chips

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World Vision One Life Experience

I took some time on Friday to walk through the World Vision One Life Experience, located at the HMV Stage at West Edmonton Mall. I read about the free exhibit a few days ago, and was interested to see how the stories of the children affected by HIV/AIDS would be conveyed.

Upon entering the exhibit, I was given an iPod Shuffle and headphones, and asked to enter a curtained area after pressing play. Participants follow the tracks of one of four children based on true stories. I was Stephen, an 11 year old from Uganda.

The path travelled included pictures of Stephen's family and a replica of the bed he and his siblings slept in. One night, he and his brother were abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army, after which Stephen was forced to watch and commit horrible acts of violence. Here, I was invited to pick up a rifle attached to the wall, to feel the weight of the weapon and further immerse myself in the footsteps of the young boy. Luckily, Stephen was rescued from his captors and spent some time in a rehabilitation camp for child soldiers.

Before heading home, Stephen had to take an HIV/AIDS test. At this point, participants were directed to a clinic to sit and reflect on the possibility of infection before being provided with a piece of paper stamped either with a "+" or "-" sign. It was a bit unnerving, even though it wasn't "real." Stephen thankfully tested negative, and was reunited with his family.

This is a really unique exhibit because it goes beyond using statistics and images to expose the public to the HIV/AIDS pandemic and other problems being faced by many countries in Africa. The One Life Experience runs until Sunday.

One Life Experience


Thursday, August 23, 2007

Many Happy Returns: Leva Cappuccino Bar

I was on the hunt for a good panini sandwich today, and remembered Leva (11053 86 Avenue). As I was heading to the nearby Jubilee Auditorium later that evening anyway, it was a convenient stopover.

I ordered the 4 cheese and roasted tomato panini, which came served with a lovely vegetable salad dressed with a sweet and sour balsamic vinaigrette. The sandwich was nicely toasted, and the cheese satisfyingly melted.

This was only my second visit to the cafe, but I love Leva's vibe. The choice of classic soul tunes created an upbeat and easygoing atmosphere, and the service has been friendly and helpful. A bonus for me - their selection of cooking and entertaining magazines are a source of welcome distraction for me. Who needs a free daily when you've got Donna Hay?

My only complaint is their cash-only policy. Though they have an in-house ATM, it's hard not to see it as an underhanded cash cow; not only do they not have to pay debit machine and credit card charges, but they also get to collect wayward ATM transaction fees on top of that.

Despite that, I still readily recommend Leva - for their food, coffee, and gelato - but make sure you've got some cash on hand.

4 cheese panini

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

What's Your Wallet?

Contrary to the title of my blog, I'm not actually very optimistic. So it might be surprising that I happily embraced the only positive outcome of my stolen wallet - having the excuse to shop for a new one.

Over the weekend, I perused the selection of Matt & Natt wallets at The Plaid Giraffe on Whyte, but wasn't too piqued with what I saw. The Vintage Collection was made using sleek material, and though the plum coloring caught my eye, the designs weren't as compact or functional as I would have liked.

This week, I had the chance to visit Groove Stone in Southgate, and was ecstatic to see that they carried Miss Main, the exact wallet that was taken from me! While I flirted briefly with a longer, chequebook style for a day, I ended up traveling the road already taken and bought a red/cognanc Miss Main.

I may be boring, but sometimes, practicality trumps all.


Sunday, August 19, 2007

Live & Let Fringe: Day 4

I took my sisters to Strawberries in January (Stage 6) today. There was quite a bit of buzz surrounding this romantic comedy before the festival even began (directed by Mieko Ouchi, starring real-life couple Chris Bullough and Jana O'Connor), so I had high expectations going in. There was just something missing about the production, but what I can't quite put my finger on. Bullough (as Francois) was solid, Patrick Howarth had his usual presence, and I really have no complaints about the female cast members, but besides a few tender moments (Bullough's laundromat confession of loving Sophie's flaws was touching), the script felt empty. Besides Francois' pleas, I never really saw the evidence I needed to want to see him united with his beau, and because of that, the ending was abrupt and smelled more than a little of deux ex machina. Strawberries in January is far from being a bad play, but one I just can't recommend.

With the return of the work week, I'll be giving the Fringe a rest for a few days. But I'll be back for a handful of plays before the close of the festival.

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Live & Let Fringe: Day 3

My third day at the festival was a morning-to-night affair. While many of the Fringing public prefer wandering the grounds in the evening, I can honestly say I like arriving on site early. To grab a coffee and a paper, walk the alleys before a single vendor has opened, and appreciate the quiet before the storm has become a personal tradition for me. I haven't been as fanatical this year about needing to secure those coveted front-row-centre seats, but I do remain tied to lining up somewhat early alongside fellow die-hard Fringers.

My first show of the day was The World's Wife (Stage 2), which features two of my favorite actresses - Davina Stewart and Leona Brausen. Adapted from poems by award-winning Carol Anne Duffy, the play cycles through solo vignettes of wives of famous figures throughout history. I have never before seen a Fringe production with such elaborate costumes; the price of admission is easily recouped based on the wardrobe changes alone (Stewart's showstopping Medusa gown garnered a few gasps from the audience). Beyond aesthetics, the perspectives on sacrifice, love, sexual power, and subordination are portrayed perfectly by the three women (Brausen's incredibly astute Mrs. Darwin was my hands-down favorite). Trevor Schmidt's direction was notably creative - casting Eurydice (Orpheus's tragic love) as a stand-up comedian complete with a laugh track was inspired. A likely candidate for the post-Fringe holdovers, The World's Wife is a fun and intelligent play.

Later that afternoon, I headed to Stage 6 (Catalyst Theatre, and in my opinion the best of the Fringe venues) for Madagascar. It is without question the best play I have seen at the Fringe so far this year, and one that I almost don't want to write about for fear that I will not do it justice. The premise, as presented in the program, is simple, "three Americans find themselves alone, in the same hotel room overlooking the Spanish Steps in Rome." Operating on different timelines, it took some time to piece together the story, but believe me, it is worth the effort. Haunting, sad, tragic - Madagascar asks difficult questions about family, identity, relationships, and personal needs in beautiful prose illuminated by the exceptional ensemble of Vanessa Sabourin, David Ley and Coralie Cairns. Sabourin and Ley in particular shone - the audience felt their pain, confusion and frustration on every step of their journey. I will stop there, but like Esther's Hands and The Bone House from Fringes past, Madagascar has left an indelible impression on me.

That night, I met up with a friend to watch David Belke's The Head Shot of Dorian Grey (BYOV C). As my friend remarked, Belke's productions are reliable, his name nearly synonymous with "romantic comedy" at the Fringe. This incarnation involves two young actors (Jesse Gervais, Katherine Fadum) who first meet at an audition, but don't discover their chemistry on stage until a joint reading of Romeo & Juliet. Setting the play in the world of theatre allowed Belke to share his inside observations gleaned from personal experience, but it seemed to get out of hand at times - the one hundred minute play felt long, with each crazy audition coming off like filler and like another stall tactic to keep the two would-be lovers apart. Gervais has never blown me away before, but here he was very natural, good humored, and likable. And oh, that gaze - did I ever want to be on the receiving end of that stare. Also a Belke standard, the supporting characters, or in this case, the supporting actors cast in multiple roles, were superb. So much so that the play could have germinated from a decision to test the deft versatility of Linda Grass and Glenn Nelson in a series of quirky but forgettable characters. Overall, Dorian Grey is cute, but not as memorable as many a Belke play.

We ended the evening with a quick bite at Murietta's. The high ceilings might be nice to look at, but had an echo-chamber effect, with the room reaching a surprisingly-high volume. I ordered the portabello mushroom ravioli, and while it reached our table in no time at all, the dish itself was nothing special. The slightly pricey menu matches the elegant setting, but I'd much rather head to the more casual Dadeo's or Cafe Mosaics anytime.

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Live & Let Fringe: Day 2

Walking the grounds this year, it appeared that vendor numbers are down, with less food and merchandise kiosks on site. At least, the glut that usually line Gateway Boulevard and 104th Street are missing; I wonder if less permits were distributed this year?

I asked Dickson and Mack to join me for two shows on Friday evening. The first was The Power of Ignorance (Stage 5), a show that was impossible to get tickets for when it premiered in Edmonton in 2003. I am not a fan of solo performances, but after this, I now know that I simply have to choose the ones involving stand-up comedians. Chris Gibbs was hilarious as the (de)motivational speaker Vaguen. He had the perfect voice for the part, and could have easily been cocking his eyebrow for the duration of his satiric performance. Much of the punchlines were delivered rapid-fire, so I can't say that I picked up everything, but the script was extremely clever, pulling apart popular expressions and universal truths. I also enjoyed the segue ways into his childhood - the anecdotes humanized Vaguen, and rounded out the play nicely by providing a storyline of sorts to follow. Get tickets while you can - the play garnered a 4.5 rating in the Saturday Journal.

We had some time to wander and relax before our second show, so ended up sitting in the near-empty beer tent on "Westjet Way" (compared to the standing room only one next to the Walterdale), and saw at least four Die-Nasty cast members leaving the tent. So if you want to do some celebrity-spotting...

Die-Nasty has been on my hit-list for years, but the late showtime has always been a deterrent, so I was glad to finally be able to participate in this Fringe tradition (Stage 8). I was sad to see that Jeff Haslam was absent from the cast, but Davina Stewart/Mark Meer/Leona Brausen had their A-games going, so that made up for the void somewhat. At the other end of the spectrum, I suspect the actress who played the Constable was smashed, because she was annoyingly disruptive and intruded on quite a few scenes; hopefully she straightens up for the rest of the Fringe run. There were many inside theatre jokes (including Ron Pederson's comment about the pretentious "scarf-wearing" public, a reference to his recent letter to See Magazine and the subsequent ripple effect), but much of the humor came from the snide remarks directed at the changes in this year's festival (buying tickets at "West Edmonton Mall"). It occurred to me that this troupe of actors are very lucky to have such a venue to publicly air out their grievances with the Fringe leadership - but if anything, they've earned it. In all, this episode wasn't as funny as the season finale I attended back in May, but I can now remove it from my Fringe to-do list.

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Saturday, August 18, 2007

Milestone #2

Back in December, I vowed to overcome two challenges. The first, to maintain this blog for three months, which I reached back in January. The second was to accumulate three hundred posts.

This is post #300.

It seems that I reflect too much on the nature of blogging, especially considering the life span of this blog isn't particularly long. So without being too self-indulgent, I will keep it short: a blog is a great way of visually documenting one's experience. I don't think it's any coincidence that my interest in cooking heightened right around the time I began The Cooking Chronicles, writing not only notes about my experiments with new recipes, but also uploading pictures of the finished products. A straightforward medium of organizing thoughts, ideas and adventures, I'm finding that it is ultimately worth the time that it takes to post in detail.

Next up: besting Dickson's post count...any bets?


Film: "High School Musical 2"

The long-awaited sequel to High School Musical premiered on Friday to tweens armed with VCRs, parents enjoying the wave of non-threatening, family-friendly entertainment, fans of Zac Efron (Dickson), and those curious to see if the film could possibly live up to the expectation and hype (me). It failed to deliver.

Despite being nearly two hours long (thus having ample time to redeem itself and/or improve along the way), the movie played too much like a poor excuse to capitalize on success. There were one or two catchy songs, but for the most part, the numbers were overdone and melodramatic (see Efron's solo on the putting green), appearing unnecessary and draining whatever earnestness was gained through the acting. The vocals were also terrible, overly synthesized to the point where some of the singers sounded identical. I'm being harsh - harsher because of the grand expectations created in the wake of the original, but ultimately, I was disappointed that this was the final product. I doubt I will shell out cash to watch the third installment in the theatres.

On another note, I figured the late August release date was timed to coincide with a movie that tracked the summer holidays of the musically-inclined bunch, but after seeing the insane merchandising push by Disney, I now know otherwise. Besides the very-marketable back-to-school items, the over one hundred licensed products include video games, pillows, and dolls. I couldn't resist taking a picture of a shoe I saw in Payless recently, if not only because only the wearer of the flip-flops would know their devotion to High School Musical.

For those who want to step on Troy and Gabriella

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Friday, August 17, 2007

Culinary Q & A with Felicia

What did you eat today?

For breakfast: Apple cinnamon cheerios with milk
Snack: Chocolate chiller from Second Cup.
Late night dinner: Seafood fettucine from Milestones.

What do you never eat?

Because of allergies..all nuts. With the exception of Sharon insisting she knew how to read the french/italian ingredients on the back of the hippo shaped kinder surprise..which did in fact contain hazelnuts and resulted in an allergic reaction.

What is your personal specialty?

Chocolate chip cookies

What is your favorite kitchen item?

Anything i need to cook what i'm cooking?

World ends tomorrow. Describe your last meal.

Mom's donut style pastry thing that i don't know how to say in english with a glass of chocolate milk and...there would be too many things to name.

Where do you eat out most frequently?

I eat everywhere.

What's the best place to eat in Edmonton?

Since i have not eaten in every restaurant in edmonton...i don't know if i can say.

If you weren't limited by geography, where and what would you eat?

I would go to Italy and have the freshest pasta available to me.

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Live & Let Fringe: Day 1

It is no secret that the Fringe is my favorite time of year in Edmonton - I can just about hear Julie Andrews' voice in my head as I pass the painted busker squares, jewelry vendors, and mini-doughnut stand.

Of course, the main attraction being theatre, I was interested to see if the vibe of the Fringe had shifted at all since the axe fell on sales at the venue door. Picking up my tickets at the unmarked "will call" window in the Arts Barns took a little longer than it should have - it seems one of the patrons at the counter had had some trouble with his online purchase confirmation. To be fair, the festival should be allowed time to work out the inevitable kinks of a new system, but the staff seemed terribly inefficient and ill-trained, deferring their queries to the one person who seemed to actually know what was going on. The queue at the main box office was also very slow-moving; I hope this is not the case later on in the festival, otherwise last-minute decision makers will be forced to adopt a new show selection strategy. As for the satellite box office locations (which weren't open until later that night), I know I'm not the only one who thinks that they look a tad...corporate. With the necessary gate protecting computer equipment (and employee) built into the wooden structures, purchasing a ticket somehow feels less personal than simply approaching volunteers at a makeshift stand in front of a venue.

We watched one show - Matt & Ben (Stage 1), a satire about Damon and Affleck's rise to fame in the form of Good Will Hunting 'falling from the ceiling.' Being a fan of Jocelyn Ahlf (Ben) made this an easy early pick, and she did not disappoint. She demonstrated great comedic timing once again, and her zealous embrace of silly quirks really distinguished her from her co-star. Belinda Cornish was weaker in her portrayal of Matt, but she did better as the ghost of J.D. Salinger. The storyline as a whole was less about "male bonding" as the program portrayed, and more about two foil friends trying to find their way in the world together and as individuals. It was light Fringe fare, and a good way to start off the weekend (both Colin MacLean and Liz Nicholls were in attendance, so expect reviews in the papers tomorrow).

On to day 2!

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Expectedly Uninspired: Chili's Grill & Bar

I believe I was still wearing white jeans and listening to Hanson the last time I ate at Chili's (or was that last weekend? Haha). In any case, it has been a while.

Bettina and I ended up at the Whyte Avenue location (8217 104 Street) tonight for a pre-Fringe show supper. The restaurant is surprisingly clean (not sure why I expected otherwise), and the decor features the stone and wood accents that are rampant in eateries associated with the word "grill." I agree with Bettina's assessment that Chili's has done well in revamping its image in an attempt to compete for the lounge crowd, but for this branch in particular, it tries too hard to cater to all diners, from families to the after work and evening patrons. Quality seems to be the first casualty in chains that stretch themselves too thin.

Nothing on the menu was particularly intriguing, but all I felt like eating was a simple burger and fries, so it didn't matter too much. I ordered the Bacon Burger (maple-smoked bacon, cheddar, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles) with a side of fries, while Bettina chose the Lettuce Wraps.

The service was quite attentive throughout, so I couldn't complain about the wait staff, but the food was less than impressive. My burger and fries were warm, as if they had been left standing on the counter for some time, and unexplainably they had only decided to toast only the top half of the bun. Bettina's said her dish was all right, but the portion wasn't worth the $12.99 charged.

With the exception of Cafe Mosaics (and Dadeos to some extent), there seems to be a dearth of good dining available on Whyte. It may be worth going elsewhere (like the nearby Route 99 Diner), for a bite to eat after drinks.

Restaurant interior (second floor)

Bacon Burger

Lettuce Wraps

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More Fringe Notes

  • Well-respected theatre tour-de-force Ken Brown collected his observations on the changing philosophies of the Fringe, printed in the Letters section of the Edmonton Journal today.

  • I didn’t get a chance to stop by the festival grounds of the Calgary Fringe on the weekend. I did read about it though, and it seems this is the second crack for Cowtown’s summer theatre festival. It seems the company that pioneered the first Fringe in 2000 fell on hard times, but a revitalized group endeavored to bring it back last year. They have apparently secured enough funding until 2010. It would be exciting to be a part of such from-scratch development. I was spoiled in Edmonton to have stepped into an already established and successful event.

  • I was separated from my beloved Fringe program for a few days, and I now realize how difficult it is to plan beyond one show when using the online information system. No show lengths are listed, so it’s difficult to schedule one after another.

  • The papers are abuzz with Fringe previews: the Journal has numbers pegging advance ticket sales at 13,000, even before a single curtain. More from the Journal, the Edmonton Sun, Vue Weekly, and See Magazine.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Notes on the Fringe

  • Frequent and Double Fringer passes sold out ahead of last year, reported Metro today. It no doubt has to do with the fact that for the first time ever, the passes can be used to purchase advance tickets. I myself bought a Frequent Fringer pass, committing myself to ten shows. But considering the savings of $4 per ticket, it is unbelievably worthwhile.
  • I did experiment with the new online box office, and I am not impressed. I not only had error messages preventing me from logging in, but also, when I did get to the purchase screen, I found that I was only given the option of buying one accompanying ticket per show. I resorted to falling back on ordering tickets over the phone. Somehow it's more reassuring to speak to a representative anyhow.
  • Reviews from the Winnipeg Fringe and the Saskatoon Fringe are available, including those that rated five stars in the Winnipeg Free Press and Saskatoon's 10 best. I'm annoyed that TJ Dawe didn't get a slot in Edmonton's festival - Maxim & Cosmo sounds like it would have been a riot.
  • In addition to watching Die-Nasty for this first time this year, I also think it's about time I attempted a deep-fried twinkie. And after reading the description gleaned from the New York Times as referenced on that Wikipedia page...well, you'll see: "Something magical occurs when the pastry hits the hot oil. The creamy white vegetable shortening filling liquefies, impregnating the sponge cake with its luscious vanilla flavor. . . The cake itself softens and warms, nearly melting, contrasting with the crisp, deep-fried crust in a buttery and suave way. The piece de resistance, however, is a ruby-hued berry sauce, adding a tart sophistication to all that airy sugary goodness." Whoo.
See you there!

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Pan-Asian Goodness: Matahari

High Street is home to many untapped culinary adventures, at least for me. So I took a step in the right direction when May and I dined in Matahari (10108B - 124 Street) this evening.

Being early on a Tuesday, we were surprised that there were three tables of patrons already seated when we entered the restaurant. The decor is simple and soothing, with light green walls and a functioning koi pond in the centre of the dining room. Oddly-designed square booths line the main seating area, that would hypothetically fit six persons, but for ease of exit and entry could likely only comfortably fit four.

Spouting a "pan-Asian" menu, I expected watered-down cuisine heavily influenced by the Western majority, but I was pleasantly surprised. There were a few dishes (Singapore Laksa and Malaysian Rendang, to name a few) that I'd want my Mum to sample to determine the level of authenticity. Despite the many tempting options, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to have their tofu Pad Thai (stir fried flat rice noodles with chives, egg, pickled radish, and bean sprouts in a tangy tamarind sauce topped with ground peanuts). May selected the Kerala Noodles (Indian stir fried vermicelli with peas, onion, egg, curry leaves, carrots, red bell pepper, in a tomato and soy-based sauce topped with cashew nuts and coriander). I also ordered a plate of Thai Curry Puffs to start.

The food took a little longer than I would have liked (not having eaten anything since lunch), so I was more than hungry by the time our appetizer reached us. But they were worth it - the puff pastry was flaky, filled with spiced beef with just the right amount of heat. The oyster sauce for dipping was a sweet accompaniment to the dish. The serving, however, was on the small side for the $4.95 price tag.

Our entrees arrived soon after, and I found the portions to be quite generous (I had enough left over for a good sized lunch the next day)! I had asked for mild seasoning, and it was exactly that. The chives and radish provided a nice crunch, while the tofu rounded out the dish quite nicely. I would consider Bua Thai's version slightly better, but Matahari's is less greasy and lighter overall.

I'd recommend Matahari, and will be back myself, perhaps once I've visited their neighbours.

Extensive menu

Thai Curry Puffs

Pad Thai

Kerala Noodles

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Monday, August 13, 2007

Weekend in Calgary

Bettina and I had talked in the spring about a weekend trip to Calgary, but due to various factors including work and vacation, we weren't able to align our schedules until August.

On Friday afternoon, I hopped on an express Red Arrow coach to meet up with Bettina. I haven't yet had the opportunity to talk about them before, so I will seize this platform now - I would strongly encourage anyone needing transportation south to consider taking the bus. Besides the free snacks and beverages, the coaches are clean, efficient, and often come with unforeseen bonuses (like wireless internet access!). Fares are reasonable ($63.60 one way), and the downtown Calgary drop off point is conveniently just a few blocks away from a C-Train stop.

After arriving, Bettina's Aunt was nice enough to drive us to the hotel so I could drop off my bag. Our accommodation for night one was the Hampton Inn in NW Calgary.

Our room at the Hampton Inn

It doesn't look like much, but I was quite impressed with our suite. Equipped with a fridge and a microwave, as well as a DVD player, the room would have definitely allowed for a comfortable multi-night stay should we have needed it. Moreover, the included continental breakfast the next morning was extremely generous, or what I would call "Contiki-plus": in addition to the requisite cereal, fruit, and coffee, they offered a variety of healthy and sweet carb choices and hot sausage patties (so bad, but so good). I'm not sure why accommodations matter so much to me, particularly when the backbones of my getaways are sightseeing and not sleeping, but I suppose it has to do with being able to live at the border of one's means when away from home.

For dinner, we explored our options on Stephen Avenue. We did pass by Blink Supper Club, but the $30+ entree price scared us away.

Stephen Avenue (and a reflection of the Calgary Tower)

We ended up in the familiar Milestone's (107 8th Avenue SE). Bettina selected her favorite California spring salad (baby greens, mild goat cheese, fresh sliced strawberries, red onion and spicy-glazed pecans) while after some agony, I chose the butternut squash ravioli (Roma tomato sauce, goat cheese, fresh basil, spicy-glazed pecans). The food arrived surprisingly quick. The dressing on Bettina's salad was unfortunately much too strong, and I didn't appreciate the fact that my pasta appeared to be swimming in olive oil. Besides the grease factor, however, I thoroughly enjoyed the ravioli filling - the squash was creamy and complemented well by the tomato sauce. I'm still not a fan of goat cheese, particularly because it unfailingly dries out dishes, but I'm slowly learning not to be deterred by its presence.

Butternut squash ravioli

California spring salad

The next morning after breakfast, we left the Hampton and secured our luggage at our next hotel, as it was too early to check in. We then took the C-Train to the trendy neighbourhood of Kensington, home of decor, gift, and clothing boutiques a la Whyte Avenue, but decidedly more laid back and low-key. My only real point of interest on this sojourn was to visit Crave (1107 Kensington Road NW).

Bettina decides between the lesser of several evils

Having hit Buttercream Bake Shoppe the last time I was in the city, I wanted to cross the other cupcake bakery off of my list. We actually passed right by Crave when we wandered down Kensington Road, as the storefront itself isn't very eye-catching. When we reached the store, it was bustling with customers, seemingly regulars who needed their fix of upscale baked goods. Bettina and I decided to split a half dozen (with each cupcake working out to just under $2.50 each). My picks included The Princess, Crave-O-Licious and Nutty Over Chocolate. I was most curious about the latter, wanting to compare it to Ina Garten's similar recipe. Crave's version of the icing was much sweeter (indicative of more confectioner's sugar added), but the cake itself was rather bland. Bettina mainly couldn't get over the intense amount of butter used for the icing, but I didn't mind; it's not often I indulge in cupcakes!

Our half dozen - almost too pretty to eat!

Getting Nutty Over Chocolate

We did our best to walk off the calories on our way back downtown, in search of #2 on my to-do list: Avenue Diner (105 8th Avenue SW). I was keen to compare it to Diner Deluxe, the absolutely fabulous 50s inspired diner I had brunch at in January, particularly after reading nothing but positive reviews about the restaurant.

As you're probably well-aware, I'm very picky when it comes to my diners, and I will admit to requiring this genre of eatery to conform to my personal vision of what a "diner" should be. Being a (somewhat) reasonable person, I know that such standards are really unfair, but as it is a bias I take with me, I am mentioning it upfront.

Avenue is essentially a modern incarnation of a diner, and I mean this not necessarily in a bad sense. It is clean, well-lit, equipped with a characteristic barstool countertop as well as a sleek banquet at the rear of the restaurant, making the most of a lengthy room. The black and white photographs lining the near-grey walls and molded red stools emulate a sort of upscale chicness devoid of a warmth that I associate with the word "diner". Even the eye-catching portrait of their in-house macaroni and cheese screamed more gallery than Mum's kitchen.

That said, the service was excellent throughout, and the cranberry and lemon slice in each of our water glasses was a whimsical touch. The menu featured the expected variety of omelets, breakfast carbs and sandwiches. I opted for the quiche special, served with Yukon Gold hash browns and fruit salad, while Bettina ordered the spinach salad (with spiced pecans, sun dried cranberries and vanilla-apple dressing).

The quiche itself was a mixed bag - the pesto-marinated portabello mushrooms were absolutely divine, but the "Missing Link" chicken sausage slices were surprisingly, and disappointingly dry. It would be an understatement to say Bettina didn't enjoy her salad, finding the dressing much too bland, and near flavourless. Would I return to Avenue? Perhaps only if the wait for Diner Deluxe was unmanageably long.

Tempting artwork

Restaurant interior

Quiche with Yukon Gold hash browns and fruit salad

Spinach salad

After lunch, we did some shopping in the downtown area to kill some time before being able to check into our hotel. Funny how I used to really enjoy shopping in Calgary, but after being exposed to so many new labels and stores in Europe, even the skylit Eaton Centre wasn't that exciting.

A few odd purchases later, we were ready to check out our accommodation for the night. The Westin Calgary (320 4th Avenue SW) had been renovated recently in June, even installing a Starbucks in the lobby (I seem to be able to magically gravitate towards the coffee giant without even knowing it). While the lobby was still under construction, the rooms themselves still retained the sheen of a facelift (is there a "new room" smell?). It's probably the nicest room I've ever stayed in - besides their signature Heavenly Bed, the room also featured a flat panel television and free in-room Starbucks coffee(!). Moreover, as we were in a business suite, we were allowed unlimited long distance phone calls within North America, as well as a $19 credit for the hotel's restaurant. On a side note, it's interesting how both the Westin and the Hampton Inn now have the option for patrons to create a hotel atmosphere at home by purchasing furnishings and items of comfort online (my favorite is the curved shower rod). I'm sure it's only a matter of time before these sites offer wedding registries so newlyweds can extend that honeymoon feeling all the way back home.

Our suite at the Westin

While it seems like all we did was eat that weekend, food in other cities is always a major attraction for me, so I couldn't pass up a trip to Taste of Calgary, taking place at Eau Claire Market (202, 200 Barclay Parade SW).

The crowds at Taste of Calgary (the Calgary Herald reported attendance of 60,000 to their event compared with Edmonton's supposed 600,000. Really?)

Starbucks van (they were selling samples of Blueberries and Creme Frappuccino and Blueberry White Iced Tea for 1 ticket each)

When I say the event "took place" at Eau Claire, that's a bit deceiving - the booths were actually arranged rather haphazardly in the building's parking lot. Besides making sure not to trip over the concrete blocks on the pavement, the layout of the vendors did not allow for easy browsing of options available. While Churchill Square might be a cramped venue, Eau Claire was actually worse.

The food, however, was worth the visit. My opinion is based partly on the "newness" of the menu to my palate, but I think their choices were not only better than our festival, but cheaper too (tickets were priced at 75 cents to Edmonton's dollar). The portions were larger, and some vendors even put some thought into the presentation of their dishes (paper cone-wrapped crepes for convenient stand-up snacking and mini-Chinese take-out boxes sure beat paper plates). Curiously, drinks took up over a third of the menu, with servings of beer, wine and liqueurs offered for 2 to 3 tickets each.

With my ten tickets, I had to be frugal with my selections, and ended up with a serving of butter chicken from Bombay Palace and a Bow Valley bison burger from Brewsters. Both were excellent. Bettina ended up with a burger as well, but not before she tried a BBQ beef rib from Graze Grill, home of "The Big One": a five pound sirloin steak. For the gastronomically-inclined, finishing the $99 steak within the hour results in a free meal and a place on their wall of fame. Any takers?

Butter chicken

Bow Valley bison burger

BBQ beef rib

We spent the rest of the evening walking the nearby trails.

Urban soccer (it reminded me of a picture I took in Paris)

Bettina plays tourist

Our Sunday morning breakfast at Essence, the Westin's restaurant, wasn't spectacular. And though our credit helped, my $15 omelet put us over our allowance.

We then met up with Bettina's Aunt, who drove us to an off-leash park for a walk with their Bernese Mountain Dog Hemingway and his many (large) furry friends. I've never seen so many massive dogs in one place before.

Hemingway (all 120 pounds of him)

Seriously massive dogs

The scenery of the Elbow River valley below and the skyline of downtown Calgary in the distance was nice to see, especially because it seems I rarely escape the trappings of city living when traveling.





Surprise, surprise - we followed up our outdoor excursion with a dim sum lunch at Forbidden City in Pacific Place (220, 999 36 Street NE). I wouldn't normally single out Chinese restaurants, but the portions were abnormally generous here. For example, the plate of rice crepes was double the size what any Edmonton restaurant would serve at a similar price range. Highly recommended.

We C-Trained to Chinook Mall for a quick look around, and then it was back downtown to pick up our bags. This was my first extended brush with the C-Train system, and I must admit that I am pretty impressed with its reach of many parts of the city.

For one last hurrah, we sat down for a quick treat at Fiasco Gelato (807 1 Street SW) - the chocolate hazlenut Tartufo was delicious.

Yum! (the Tartufo was underneath the raspberry sorbetto)

Back to the Red Arrow bus station (after some SE and SW misdirection), and we were home before we knew it. It was a very full weekend.

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