Optimistically Cautious

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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