Optimistically Cautious

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Lodging in New York

After some research, I learned that there really isn't a *good* time to go to New York - there are less busy seasons, sure (January - March being one of them), but because of a diminishing number of available rooms (converting to condominiums is apparently all the rage for hotel properties) and hoteliers taking advantage of visitors' deeper pockets (due to the comparably low U.S. Dollar), rooms are routinely $250 more than other American cities. Add a 13.625% tax and a $3.50/night occupancy fee, and anything that may have been affordable becomes less so very quickly. Of course, choosing to go during the peak holiday December rush doesn't help a frugal mindset, but to see New York at Christmas will be worth the extra expense.

Though friends did their best to suggest lodging possibilities, what's reasonable in slower seasons doesn't hold true for the rest of the year. However, with some digging, I came across the Pod Hotel, a newly renovated establishment named after their small, space-saving suites, and the inclusion of an iPod docking station in each room. With stellar comments on TripAdvisor with regards to their cleanliness, great location (situated just one block from a Metro station in Midtown Manhattan), free WiFi to satisfy all of Mack's blogging needs, and a en-suite bath for less than $200 a night, including taxes, we had found a winner. The trendy, young, and hip vibe I get from the hotel (and a fabulous view from the rooftop patio on the fourteenth floor) are just happy bonuses.

For future reference, setting aside hostels and sublet apartments in favor of comfortable and more traditional accommodations, here are a few other properties worth noting for your next trip to New York. While I can't personally vouch for them, based on TripAdvisor comments, travel guide recommendations, and a budgetary bracket of approximately $150 a night for two persons, this short list may be a place to start:

I'm counting down the days!

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Quotable People: Installment Six

  • "A true friend is someone who is there for you when they would rather by someplace else." – Len Wein

  • "Friendship is one of the sweetest joys in life. Many might have failed beneath the bitterness of their trial had they not found a friend." – Charles H. Spurgeon

  • "A single rose can be my garden…a single friend, my world." – Leo Buscaglia

  • "The essence of true friendship is to make allowance for another’s little lapses." – David Storey

  • "We want people to feel with us more than to act for us." – George Eliot


Monday, November 26, 2007

The Cooking Chronicles: Scotch Shortbread

When my coworker brought homemade shortbread cookies to the office the other day, I was reminded of a recipe I have been wanting to try for some time. So I hauled out my pink Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book, and flipped to the page with directions for Scotch Shortbread.

The ingredients couldn't be more common - butter, confectioner's sugar, and flour - while the prep was easy and fast. I didn't quite know how to "crimp" the edges, but as no one but my family would be sampling my cookies, it didn't matter so much.

This recipe - while lighting quick to put together - just wasn't good. Much too bland (the cookies are in dire need of sugar), I was not completely without fault, as I was guilty of under baking the batch. Still, this was a surprising first strike to my trusty BHG.

Scotch Shortbread

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Sunday, November 25, 2007

Food Notes

  • Edmontonians can breathe a sigh of relief - Capital Health has announced that the inspection results of city-wide restaurants will be accessible to the public by July 1.
  • The Matrix Hotel, besides being the home of Edmonton's newest Starbucks, will also house a new restaurant from the L'Azia Group, called the Wildflower Restaurant. Barring construction delays, it will open in November. The Edmonton City Centre location of L'Azia used to be a favorite pre and post-movie destination for my friends and I during high school. I have found, however, that the food and service has steadily declined over the years, and haven't been back. I hope the Wildflower is able to meet high expectations, otherwise, the Century Hospitality Group may have been a better choice to fill the space.
  • Here's a reason, besides the cheap merchandise, to visit Wal-Mart: only available in McDonald's restaurants situated inside the discount retailer, are cinnamon pullaparts. Rich, warm, and an instant cure for any sweet tooth, these buns are only $1.79, about half the price of those found at Cinnamon City or Cinnabon. Try it. You'll never pay $4.50 for an icing-topped wonder again.
  • On the topic of McDonald's, the company announced plans to breach the specialty coffee market by offering lattes, mochas, cappuccinos and espressos. But it may not be so easy - apparently many franchise owners are opposed to the $100,000 needed for initial equipment purchases and renovations. A surprising statistic from the article - about 1 in 5 Americans has an espresso based drink every day.
  • I've never really paid attention to either Zagat or Michelin restaurant guides, so I was happy to read a sort of "primer" article on their influences and reputations this week in the Globe. Interesting fact - Michelin stars are awarded purely on the strength of the food, and ignore service and ambiance.
  • To assist area restaurants affected by the Broadway strike, Mayor Bloomberg instigated a "Dining in the District" promotion - over 25 restaurants offering 15% off lunch and dinner menus. It was to end November 25; I wonder if it will be extended as the strike continues?


Words For Your Consideration

I couldn't resist posting a section of today's "Telescope", a weekly column in the Edmonton Journal's Sunday Reader. It's just too clever to be missed:

"Drop the first letter of an existing word to create a new one, and then supply a definition for it. Readers of the Washington Post's Style Invitational were asked to do just that. Here is an alphabetical sampling of the results:
  • Amburger: My realization about myself as I'm kidnapped by cannibals.
  • Amished: Hungering for a simpler way of life.
  • Assover: Any holiday dinner at which an unwanted in-law makes an appearance.
  • Bracadabra: A good boob job.
  • Brupt: Really, really sudden.
  • Egotiation: An I for an I.
  • Eminar: Eminem's fifth child.
  • Etard: A person who constantly replies to "all" in e-mails directed to only one person.
  • Gonize: To kick someone in the groin.
  • Hardonnay: You can guess.
  • Ho's Who: National registry of prominent hookers.
  • Iarrhea: Running on about oneself.
  • Ickpocket: A place to put your used Kleenex.
  • Irates: After 15 consecutive losing seasons, what's left of Pittsburgh's baseball fans.
  • Kin-diving: Incest.
  • Mnesia: Forgetting a mnemonic device.
  • Ngland: Vietnam.
  • Ooperstown: Home of the Bill Buckner Hall of Fame.
  • Ouch-and-go: A dominatrix's house call.
  • Oxtrot: A particularly ungraceful Dancing With the Stars performance.
  • Pectacular: Unbelievably chesty.
  • P-portunity: Rest stop.
  • Rackdown: The inevitable result of the battle between breast and gravity.
  • Rankfurter: Hotdog from the back of the refrigerator.
  • Riminal: A man who doesn't clean up his toilet dribble.
  • Riskies: Chinese-made cat food.
  • Unich: German city voted World's Safest Town for Women.
  • Urple: The colour of vomit. "For feeding the baby, Mom always wore her urple sweatshirt."
  • XY-moron: A man."


Saturday, November 24, 2007

"Sex and the City", Complete

I recently completed my DVD collection of Sex and the City, at just $19.99 a pop for the seasons I was missing. In most cases, it is cheaper to wait for the release of the series collection (Costco had the complete West Wing on sale for just under $200), but that wasn't the case for the chronicles of Carrie and company.

I actually did not become a full-fledged fan of the show until it was already into its last season. While I've managed to catch most of the back episodes in syndication, I can't say the "safe for non-cable television" versions are quite the same as the HBO uncensored variety. Though understandably changed to reflect more tasteful language and image restrictions, the amount of content that needs to be cut from a 29 minute episode to fit into a 22 minute format is substantial. If anything, the full versions allow me to appreciate the show more - in its extended character development, humor, and of course, envelope-pushing subject matter.

Given the amazing official website, with detailed episode summaries, fashion guides, and a newly added map plotting memorable Manhattan locations, one would think some of that information could have migrated into the DVD sets. Between cheap plastic cases and a lack of accompanying paper guides with episode listings, I am disappointed HBO didn't put more thought into the design of the poorly packaged products.

Though the extras are also sparse, I did enjoy listening to the commentary provided by Michael Patrick King. It is evident, however, that he is completely biased towards Sarah Jessica Parker - he adores her so much I wouldn't be surprised if his close connection with her was what sabotaged an SaTC movie immediately after the show's finale. It was rumored that Kim Catrall had wanted more prominence on the show, but with the production stranglehold held by King and Parker, that would have never happened.

After watching the evolution of the show from start to finish, I now fully understand the appeal of Mr. Big. Chris Noth does a fantastic job (he simply exudes charm) but with his abrupt shifts at the end of Season 1 and mid-way through Season 2, I think the writers committed convenient character assassinations for the sole purpose of complicating Carrie's life. Season 2's "La Douleur Exquise!" was lovely though, melancholic in a cloud of bittersweet sadness, while Big's friendly departure for Napa in Season 4 was quintessential New York romance - scored, of course, by Mancini's "Moon River".

We're planning on going on the Sex and the City tour while in New York (fingers crossed), and I am certain it will be just as surreal as I imagine it to be.


Friday, November 23, 2007

As Seen on TV: Koutouki Taverna

Ever since The Family Restaurant aired on Food Network Canada, my Mum and I have been itching to visit Koutouki - not for the food necessarily, but in order to see the venue of a television production in person. As I had heard dinners at Koutouki was quite pricey, we decided to swing by for lunch instead.

Our schedules finally aligned, and with a day off on Friday, I made a reservations for my parents and I at the southside Taverna (10310 45 Avenue). Stepping into the low-ceilinged building, I found the space cramped, but in a comfortable, "get to know your neighbour" kind of way, similar to TZiN. I loved the overhanging ivy-like plants, with twinkle lights looped in-between pots - they would, as my Mum commented, be a nightmare to water, but really elicited feelings of romanticism and escapist possibilities. Even more than Blue Willow, pictures of the family behind Koutouki lined every wall (including patriarch Yianni Psalios with Kevin Lowe, and even Muhammad Ali!) and served their function of making diners feel like a part of the establishment's growing history.

While I can't claim to be a huge fan of Greek cuisine, I probably haven't sampled enough of it to really make a fair judgment. It turns out Koutouki doesn't offer a separate lunch and dinner menu, so my delay was for naught. The waitress spoke of two specials, one of which sounded good to me - a pork donair-esque dish ($15.95) that I can't remember by name. My parents opted for the second special, a rack of lamb, also priced at $15.95.

While waiting for our entrees, we were offered bread and Greek salad (feta, tomatoes, red onion, cucumbers, olives) lightly tossed in olive oil. It was a light, refreshing way to start out our meal, and I didn't even mind the feta in the dish.

We did get to see Yianni and his wife Kally - Yianni stepped out to survey the dining room at one point, and Kally was busy refilling coffee and water throughout our time there. Everything seemed so normal and commonplace that it was strange to think a full television crew was once stationed here.

Our entrees arrived and I immediately knew I wouldn't be able to finish the large portion, especially given that this was my first meal of the day. The cubes of pork within my donair tasted tough and overcooked, but I was willing to overlook that if not for the overpowering lemon used in both the sauce and the potato side dish. The citrus was so pervasive that everything actually tasted sour. And though I'm not averse to parsley, overuse of the fresh herb was too much for me in this case. My parents thought the lamb was all right, though they would have happily accepted steak knives instead of the butter knives provided at the tables.

While we were treated to attentive service during our time at Koutouki, I can't say I'll be back. The food really played second-string to "celebrity-sighting" this afternoon.

Restaurant interior


The Psalios family

Yianni with Muhammad Ali

Certificate from Premier Ralph Klein, congratulating Yianni and Kally on their grand Cyprus wedding for daughter Dina

Greek salad


Rack of lamb

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Thursday, November 22, 2007

Avalanche vs. the Oilers: 0 for 2

For my second Oilers game of the season, I wanted to see Ryan Smyth play for the opposition. He distributed pucks to fans before leaving the warm-up, as he always did, and the "boo birds" did greet him when he touched the puck (though I think, to a lesser extent than his Edmonton debut in a Colorado uniform last month).

Though these seats were much higher than the last time around, I was able to see much better from this height and perspective. Of course, given the outcome was the same (loss), I guess it didn't matter much. It is nice to see the veterans returning to the score sheet (Hemsky!), but sitting in the basement of the conference is not at all reassurring.

On the bright side, it was fun attending a game with a larger group than usual. Thanks for organizing the tickets, May!

Me and my sister

May and her coworkers James and Nathan

My Dad and Mack

Doug and Jared

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BrightNights on the Square 2007

One of three locations of the annual BrightNights displays (the other two being the Legislature grounds and Hawrelak Park), Churchill Square is given a holiday trimming with lights all along its east side. In addition, the City has also set up a giant Christmas tree, which will be lit nightly, along with the rest of the displays, until January 6.

While not worth visiting unless you're already in the area, it isn't a bad detour to take en route to the Citadel, Winspear, Stanley Milner Library, or City Centre Mall.

BrightNights on the Square

With City Hall in the background

Tree (I'll be comparing this to the Rockefeller Tree)

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Holiday Vantage Point: Three Bananas Cafe

Needing a quick bite to eat downtown, and not in the mood to jostle with the Friday night food court crowd, I was pulled towards the reliably quiet Three Bananas Cafe on Churchill Square.

Several months have passed since I last stopped by, but not much had changed about the place. As I mentioned in my previous post, however, the cafe is a tad on the dim side in the evenings, with only a few ill-placed spot bulbs overhead. Surveying all available tables, only two were bright enough to allow for comfortable reading. I was lucky to snag one, and thumbed through a free weekly while waiting for my Traditional (pepperoni and mushroom) Pizzette. Not exactly cheap at $8.95, I figured I was paying more for the venue and the view - great for people watching in the summer, the windows are an even better vantage point in the winter, opening up to the BrightNights displays on the east side of Churchill Square.

My pizza required a wait of about fifteen minutes, but arrived hot and very cheesy. It wasn't as good as I remembered, but considering the last one was consumed as I was moving back to solid foods upon recovery from my wisdom teeth extraction, a less than fantastic second trial was to be expected.

If you're around the Square to take in the holiday decorations, why not stop by Three Bananas for a warming mug of hot chocolate?

Traditional Pizzette

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Eating (in) the Big Apple

Even with the Rockefeller Christmas Tree, the Fifth Avenue shop windows, Central Park, Broadway, and the possibility of catching the filming of Sex and the City, I can't tell you what I'm more excited about - the sights or food of New York.

As I research the epicurean wonders of the Big Apple, I'm quickly finding that the tourist attractions seem to be exclusive of the city's great eats. The vast majority of the restaurants I have my eye on are in neighbourhoods we won't necessarily have a reason to visit - Chelsea, the West Village, the Flatiron district, the Upper East Side, the Lower East Side. An unlimited Metro pass is great, but at what point does it become nonsensical to waste time on a return trip to a personally unproven establishment? Moreover, I'm finding that it is near impossible to make reservations - with the uncertainty caused by the Broadway strike, and tours that may or may not be sold out on the days we planned for on paper, much may be shifted between now and then.

So from my reading/scanning of the Chowhound boards, New York Magazine, food blogs, and the more conventional guidebooks (Frommers is the best at offering pointers for reasonably-priced fare), here is a selection of some of the restaurants I'm interested in (but not necessarily will get to; all the more reason to come back to New York, no?).
  • To make it to one of Bobby Flay's three Manhattan restaurants is at the top of my list. I haven't made up my mind yet, but I'm leaning towards Bar Americain for brunch (the dining room looks spectacular).

  • Babbo, Mario Batali's crown jewel, is often cited as the most difficult of all places to get into, but I'd actually much prefer Italian from a low-key spot like Becco, which offers an incredible $16.95 prix fixe lunch of all-you-can-eat tableside pasta.

  • Other four-star prix fixe lunch steals include most of Jean Georges' empire (Perry Street and JoJo look intriguing), and the oft-complimented Eleven Madison Park (run by the same owners of another popular dining destination - Gramercy Tavern).

  • Pizzerias are ubiquitous in New York, but Lombardi's, the island's oldest, seems to drum up the most recommendations.

  • Besides Magnolia, who some say raised cupcakes to an iconic status in New York, City Bakery and Clinton Street Bakery (biscuits!) are also on my radar.

  • I'd be more than happy spending a day wandering from restaurant to restaurant in Greenwich Village - home to the very cute Peanut Butter & Co, A Salt and Battery and S'Mac (a diner that only serves variations on macaroni and cheese).

The only given at this point (and if our flight is delayed, then forget it), is the Burger Joint, a greasy spoon located behind a "brown curtain" in the lobby of the ritzy Le Parker Meridien (from the way I've seen it described, it honestly sounds like the veil Sirius Black fell through in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix). So if all goes well, we should be able to beef up on cheap burgers on our first night in town - sustenance before Mack hits the only sure thing in New York - the 24 hour Apple Store.

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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Food Notes

  • Starbucks now offers the ability to customize their reloadable gift cards. Check out their website for more details.
  • If your loved one prefers chocolate over coffee, how about purchasing a gift certificate for a chocolate tasting? Chocolate Exquisite appears to understand this indulgence quite well, pairing rich sweets with dessert wines. Interesting...
  • Speaking of wine, Wayne Gretzky joins a growing list of celebrities and sports personalities who are lending their names and reputations to vino. I can't say I've ever tried a celebrity-endorsed wine, but I'm sure it will be more difficult to avoid with time.
  • It turns out south side's Passionate Plate is another "studio kitchen" - offering patrons the opportunity to assemble meals to take home (and save time making dinner late on), or simply pick up, curbside, packages already prepared. They do have a small bistro/cafe though, and I'll try to stop by some time after a spin through the Italian Centre next door.
  • Just last week, I posted about Serendipity 3's $25,000 dessert. This week, they were shut down after failing a second straight inspection, when the health department spotted a live mouse, and over 100 cockroaches, among other things. The restaurant is apparently working hard to reopen. You'd think with the profits from their opulence sundaes, a cleaning staff would be the least they could afford to hire.
  • Here's another one to wrap your head around - a restaurant in Taipei called "Modern Toilet" seats customers on chairs shaped like toilets, which surround glass-topped bathtub tables. But even better - they serve feces-shaped ice cream in plastic toilet shaped bowls. Seriously.
  • To end on a non-disgusting note, I love what Ganda, a New York food blogger I read, has done with her restaurant reviews. Plotting her reviews on what she calls an "eat map", it's an easy way to locate her recommended eateries by neighbourhood. Given my difficulty with even using Live Maps period, this will not be an immediate development from me, but I like the idea.


Generic by Choice: White Spot

Thwarted by the long line at Tim Hortons, Dickson and I had to find an alternative breakfast/brunch place this morning. Wanting very much to satisfy my craving for eggs, I suggested we give White Spot (3921 Calgary Trail) a try.

The only thing I had heard about White Spot was that a friend who dined here once saw Steve Staios and his family at the restaurant. Other than that, my impressions were assumptions - that the White Spot was another generic establishment billing itself as family-friendly but also sophisticated enough for adult-only dining (cf. Boston Pizza, Ricky's All Day Grill, Applebee's, etc.). I wasn't wrong.

It was nearly noon by the time we pulled up to the restaurant, and we found that the wait was between fifteen to twenty minutes. That was enough time to visually explore the decor - including a prominently placed fake fireplace out front and "welcome" in a variety of languages imprinted above the waiting area. White Spot really did remind me of Kelsey's - a sports bar just off the main thoroughfare, cozy booths, friendly, girl-next-door waitresses, and a nearly identical menu.

We were seated in the back near the kitchen, in an area adjacent to a skylight, an unexpected but much appreciated design feature. It didn't take us long to decide on our meals, as there were only five brunch options available at this location (a far cry from the twelve listed on the website - there was not a pancake, waffle, or omelet in sight). We both chose Nat's Country Style Breakfast ($8.95) - toast, hash browns and 2 each of eggs, bacon and sausage.

Our orders arrived in record time - after about five minutes - though as Dickson commented, it wasn't a difficult plate to put together, nor was the serving size particularly impressive. While it was a filling first meal of the day for me, it still wasn't wholly satisfying. Perhaps it was my mistake in ordering something that I could have made myself without too much effort.

For brunch at least, there are a lot more interesting options than White Spot to choose from.

Restaurant Interior

Nat's Country Style Breakfast

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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Wayne Gretzky Was Here: Blue Willow Restaurant

My family and I had dinner at Blue Willow (11107 103 Avenue) tonight. It's a restaurant whose reputation precedes it - known to me (and many others) as a favorite of Wayne Gretzky, I wanted to see if the food would live up to the hype.

Entering a non-descript brown building that looked more like it belonged in a business park, we were immediately greeted by a narrow entrance way lined with photo memorabilia. If anything, Blue Willow is worth a visit just to take a gander at the pictures. Most of the photographs were shots of the owner, Vic Mah, with well-known hockey players, including the Great One, Vladislav Tretiak, Grant Fuhr, and even a dreadlocked Jerome Iginla!

Most of the seated patrons were of the older set, and appeared very much to be regulars. We were the only non-Caucasian customers at that time, leading us to believe the Blue Willow was very much a westernized Chinese eatery. When we noticed the lack of chopsticks at the place settings, the distribution of plates versus bowls to use, and the offering of plain steamed rice by the bowl (at $3 a pop) as opposed to by the container, our suspicions were substantiated. The Chinese tea we ordered was also not of the loose leaf variety - instead, they used two very weak tea bags. When we received the bill, we found out they charged us $9 for the tea - $2.25 each for the four of us. Had we known that in advance, I would have seriously considered bringing in a thermos.

As for the menu itself - it was very well put together - hard plastic pages bound nicely. The fare was, no surprise, quite westernized - in both selection and price point. After some perusal, we settled on the Mixed Chinese Vegetables ($9.25), Mongolian Beef ($12.25), Tofu Hot Pot ($11.75) and the Blue Willow Special Fried Rice ($10.50). It was unfortunate that it took over five minutes for our table to be acknowledged by anyone (our water glasses were eventually filled...by a boy that looked about ten years old. It is indeed a "family-run" establishment).

The dining room seemed to be quieting down, so our dishes didn't take long to arrive. I must admit I was quite impressed by their innovative plating idea: fondue-style, candlelit stainless steel contraptions complete with lids to keep the food within warm. The candle was so effective that the sauce in the vegetable and beef dishes were literally bubbling! This aside, the verdict on the food itself was mixed. The portions were very small (likely about half the size of a plate at a typical Chinese restaurant), and besides the fried rice, which was quite aromatic and flavourful, the rest of the dishes were forgettable.

After our meal, and just before receiving the bill, we were treated to a bit of a Singapore Airlines service - hot towels. Our waitress even did a spin move (similar to how one would balance a basketball on one finger) to unravel the towel. It was something you'd have to see to believe.

While I can appreciate the history behind a place like the Blue Willow, the food just isn't as good - or authentic - as I would prefer in a Chinese restaurant.

Photo on the wall of Vic Mah and Jerome Iginla

Restaurant interior (pictures were all taken on my Dad's PDA...hence the poor quality)

Beautiful china

Mixed Chinese Vegetables

Mongolian Beef

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Culinary Q & A with Jeanie

Occupation: Engineer

What did you eat today?

Lunch: leftover chili's with rice.
Dinner: Chinese stir fry, chicken wings and steamed eggs

What do you never eat?

Tofu, frozen peas, pineapple... I better stop the list here, there's a lot.

What is your personal specialty?

Instant noodles with fish balls!

What is your favorite kitchen item?

Rice cooker

World ends tomorrow. Describe your last meal.

I just want my dad to cook me my favorite food that he makes at home. I can't name most of those in English.

Where do you eat out most frequently?


What's the best place to eat in Edmonton?

Hm... this one is hard... I don't like eating out that much... I'd rather eat home at my parents'

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

This one on the other hand isn't hard at all. I'd go to HK and eat until I can't move anymore. There's so many food I love there I'm not going to start listing or else I'm just going to get hungry even though I just ate dinner. Good thing I'm going back soon.

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Monday, November 12, 2007

Birthday Fun: Japanese Village

For the site of her birthday celebration, Janice chose Japanese Village (10126 100 Street). Like many other eateries I've mentioned on this blog, this one also falls into the category of "often passed, never been." I had heard that it was quite pricey, but other than that, it was a blank slate.

Mack and I were a fashionable ten minutes tardy, but instead of finding an empty table, we were greeted by nearly the entire party. The group was seated in a fairly large private room that required the discarding of shoes.

Being one not inclined to order sushi, I was relieved to see some non-seafood items on the menu, including udon soup and cooked meats. The bento box was rather expensive in my opinion ($23.95), so I opted for Teriyaki chicken ($8.95), Edamame beans ($4.95), and a side of rice ($1.75) instead. The waitress did her best to keep the orders of over ten people straight, and I must say, did a decent job. Working with the constraint of only being able to speak comfortably to those seated at the ends of the table must be frustrating.

My Mum has since boycotted Edamame beans (whole soy beans steamed and then served with sea salt), as she hasn't been able to locate any that are cultivated outside of China. While I was certain these were also a product of China, I wanted to give them a shot. While I preferred to use my hands to pluck out the individual beans (as opposed to sliding them out in my mouth), I found them quite enjoyable. The beans was unfortunately cold when they reached me (likely a consequence of the large party), but I would still order them again. The Teriyaki chicken was all right, though I was expecting the slices to be crisper than they turned out to be (Kyoto wins this battle).

Mack's pictures from the party (and subsequent drinks session at Joey's) are here. Happy birthday Janice!

Seating area

Edamame Beans

Teriyaki Chicken

With the birthday girl

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Food Notes

  • Giada de Laurentiis is having a baby!
  • New winter issue of Kraft Canada's What's Cooking is great - tons of fabulous appetizers (including the easy to make and very presentable Won Ton Appetizer Bites) and holiday snacks like these Marbled Chocolate Treats. If you don't already get the magazine delivered free to your door - sign up today!
  • Judy Schultz reports that the Safari Bar and Grill, a new restaurant in the Coliseum Inn, will be opening in two weeks, specializing in East African cuisine.
  • Loblaws continues their desperate attempts to revive a flagging in-house food brand with new ethnic choices, including frozen dim sum favorites ha gao and siu mai. Check them out in the Holiday Insider's Guide.
  • EnRoute has chosen what they believe to be the 10 best new restaurants in Canada. Edmonton isn't represented on the main list, but Skinny Legs and Cowgirls is included on their "Next 20" restaurants to watch. I respectfully disagree.
  • Rob Feenie has left Lumiere and Feenie's, and if that weren't news enough, he's now fighting a non-compete clause that was built into his previous contract.
  • Opulence alert: for a limited time only, the Westin New York Times Square is offering a $1000 bagel, "topped with white truffle cream cheese and goji berry infused Riesling jelly with golden leaves." For dessert, feel free to have Serendipity 3's $1000 sundae, or, if you have several thousand dollars more kicking around in your pocket, how about their $25,000 version? It comes with your very own 18 karat gold spoon, goblet, and bracelet.
  • Lastly, some random food-related pictures:

First came Chicken of the Sea...

ABC, or "Already Been Chewed" cookie cutters. Who knew something so creative could be found in the aisles of Hallmark?


Saturday, November 10, 2007

Have coupon, will try: Maurya Palace

After a day of intense shopping at West Edmonton Mall, May and I were itching to escape the masses for dinner. In the car, we shuffled through my stash of coupons, and selected Maurya Palace (9266 34 Avenue) from the pile.

We drove out to "Little India", and found the restaurant, located in a strip mall amongst fabric shops, insurance brokers, and other ethnic eateries. Upon entry, we were told by the one waitress on duty to select any table. There were only four other tables occupied, and it seemed the buffet was the draw on that night, though we requested menus just in case.

The dining room was quite dim, but other than that, nothing much of note stood out. The beaded table runners were a nice touch, but besides a few gold-toned mirrors on the walls and a welcoming statue of a deity by the door, the decor was very much muted when compared with places like New Asian Village.

Before deciding on our entrees, we took a quick look at the buffet. But as it was already past 8pm, and the food very much appeared to be past its prime, we decided to order two dishes to share instead. Butter Chicken ($11.95) was selected without hesitation, and the Lamb Bahaar (tender lamb cubes cooked with onions, tomatoes, bell peppers, herbs & spices in a thick sauce; $13.95), advertised as a Chef's Special, was our second pick. An order of nan bread ($1.50) and basmati rice ($2.25) completed our meal.

The food arrived promptly, and we dug in right away. The butter chicken was great - rich and creamy, the heat level was mild, as we had asked for. The lamb on the other hand, was a bit too spicy for our taste, and the "sauce" seemed to be mainly composed of oil; though to be fair, our palettes may not have been accustomed to the flavours of this dish. The nan bread was good, but I was hoping for more than the two pieces in our basket.

With my coupon, we ended up splitting a cheque amounting to less than $20 before tip. Great deal, decent food, but given the choice, I'd be inclined to head over to the buffet at New Asian Village instead, if not only for the access to unlimited nan.

Nan Bread, Butter Chicken and Lamb Bahaar (and a bottle of wine that happened to get in the shot)

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Whimsical Cake Studio

I posted in June about the opening of a storefront Whimsical Cupcakes (14910 45 Avenue), as it has finally gained enough popularity from its appearances at local farmer's markets to sustain year round operations. Though I have been itching to visit the bakery since reading about it, I hadn't had a chance to until today.

On a gloomy Saturday, my Mum and I finally stumbled upon it, sandwiched between a tanning salon and a convenience store, in a Terwilligar Heights strip mall. Ailynn Santos, proud owner and operator, greeted us immediately upon our entry. The interior was very clean, modest, and though not nearly as pink as Cupcakes in Vancouver, the cheery checkered floor and floral wallpaper was cute without being overdone.

As I perused the flavours available, I made conversation with Ailynn, where she mentioned that she will be one of the vendors at next week's Christmas on the Square. I also ended up telling her about my upcoming trip to New York (and what will be an inevitable stop at Magnolia Bakery). She proceeded to say that she actually preferred Billy's Bakery (also a favorite of the pre-brainwashed Katie Holmes), so perhaps I will have to swing by if I'm in the neighbourhood.

I settled on a box of half a dozen to be able to share with my family, calling the New Yorker at Heart (chocolate mocha swirled with a rich coffee butter cream and a chocolate covered espresso bean) for my own. I was actually disappointed with this particular flavour - the cake itself was bland (something I'm finding as nearly a given with from-scratch batter), while the coffee taste in the frosting was negligible. The espresso bean was a nice touch, but it wasn't enough to save the cupcake.

My Mum wondered why Whimsical chose such an off-the-beaten path location for their store, and my thought was - for those who love cupcakes, distance and hassle will not be obstacles. I'm not sure I love their cupcakes that much, but should a special occasion arise, I may indeed be back.

At last!

Cupcakes galore

Too cute onesies

Our box

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

A Local Institution: Chicken for Lunch

On day two of our hour-long lunch extravaganza, I convinced my coworker to join me at the famed Chicken for Lunch in the Scotia Place food court (10060 Jasper Avenue).

This was my second visit (but the first time ordering what the regulars ask for), and the crowd never ceases to amaze me. The patron hostess Amy greets nearly every customer by name, and they are equally friendly in return. Given that by a quarter to noon, the line is already twenty people deep, it's a testament to their hard work, good customer service, and consistent food preparation.

My coworker and I joined the line, and were happy that it moved rather swiftly. She was particularly vocal about how bad she felt for the nearby vendors as they watched the line at their competition grow. But we figured - they would probably reap some overflow business from people originally wishing to try their luck at Chicken for Lunch, but ultimately not having the time to wait.

When it was my turn to order, I asked for the small combo, slecting the hot and dry chicken (as recommended by Mack, also known as "Boy"). The styrofoam clamshell filled to the brim with rice, stir-fried rice noodles, vegetables, a spring roll, and of course, the chicken came up to just $6, amazing value for a downtown fast-food eatery.

In terms of the meal itself - I really appreciated the supplementary vegetables and rice (add-ons providing an illusion of healthy eating), but the fried bits of spicy chicken weren't all that great (sacrilege to the aforementioned regulars). True, I'd never before had chicken battered like that with a heat quotient that had me wishing for water, but I wasn't convinced that this was food worth coming back to; at least not for me.

If I happen to be in the neighbourhood again around lunch time, I may stop by, but I think I'd be more likely to pop over to Shine Bistro for their daily special.

The front of the line

The daily spread

Small hot and dry chicken combo, with all the fixings

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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

A Gem of a Find: Shine Bistro

After reading a very positive review of Shine Bistro (9828 101A Avenue) in Vue Weekly several months ago, I was looking forward to sampling their fare. Upon discovery that they were only open for lunch on weekdays, I was dismayed, as having only a half hour for lunch prevents a sojourn of any kind beyond the humble square footage of my office.

That said, when booked for off-site training in November at a nearby college, I was hoping I could rope my colleague into trying out the cafe with me. She heartily agreed, and we set off for an early lunch after being released from the lab.

It wasn't an easy place to find, tucked away on the eastern side of the Citadel Theatre complex. We were lucky to find that a crowd had yet to gather, so were able to order right away. Their menu was displayed above the counter on a colorful blackboard, reminding me very much of the now-defunct Whole in the Wall cafe (the space now occupied by Tzin). Though they had many tempting options (including pizza, salads, and cold "shinewiches"), we both decided to try the special of the day - a Chicken Cordon Bleu Sandwich, served with either a soup or one of three made-from-scratch soups ($6.99).

We found a choice table situated by the window, and waited patiently for our food as the place filled up. It was barely five to twelve and all the tables had already been spoken for. We didn't wait long, but quite frankly I wouldn't have minded. It was a lovely day, and with the sun streaming in from the window next to us, illuminating displayed artwork for sale and the charming red of the dining tables, I could have remained there all afternoon.

The food was great - they certainly didn't skimp on the chicken breast, and the melted swiss and crispy ham, sandwiched between the toasted kaiser sides was bliss. The soup definitely tasted homemade, with a generous serving of vegetables, chickpeas, and lima beans in every spoon full. My only nitpick was that the potatoes and carrots weren't as soft as they could have been, and should have been allowed to stew for a while longer.

Shine Bistro does feel like a gem of a find - its location, minimal hours, and limited number of in-house seating lend itself to the cultivation of an exclusive crowd. So if you're in the area, buck the food courts and fast food giants and give Shine a try! You won't regret it.

Approaching Shine Bistro


Order counter (I love the colorful blackboard)

Table for two

Chicken Cordon Bleu Sandwich with Minestrone

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Sunday, November 04, 2007

Food Notes

  • Breadland, the newest artisan, upscale bakery opened in Oliver Square in May, and was featured in two articles this week.
  • Downtown's Essence Organic Tea Bar is holding it's grand opening this week, from November 5-10. It's a good opportunity to taste their products, a great alternative when you're looking for something lighter than a cup of joe.
  • Speaking of coffee - Tim Horton's now offers a reloadable TimCard, making it even easier to get your fix.
  • There's a pretty good article in the newest Vue Weekly about Tree Stone Bakery owner Nancy Rubuliak's journey from social worker to bread baker. It seems that her transition from professional to practitioner of the culinary arts is not unique - from Ina Garten (who started off as a nuclear policy analyst to owner of Barefoot Contessa, and is now, of course, a well-known television personality) to Anna Olsen of Food Network Canada fame and Gail Hall, owner of Edmonton's Seasoned Solutions, it's interesting to know that many who work in the food industry didn't directly arrive at that career.
  • The next time I'm in Toronto, I'll be sure to give Buddha Dog a try. Offering hot dogs with creative toppings and the choice of 80 sauces, they are making waves primarily because of their distinctive logo.
  • Has anyone tried Taco del Mar? (Their slogan is the cheesy "Delicious is our middle name.) I've noticed two new locations over the past few week - one on Roper Road, and another in the shopping complex on 17th Street, and according to their website, there are two other branches in the city.
  • I bought an Entertainment Book for the first time this year, and was really expecting more from it. I know it is impossible for the book to foretell restaurant closures, and likely, requests to be included in the book are submitted well in advance of its distribution, but after a coupon was declined at Wok Box, finding out that Sapphire had shut down, and on the weekend, discovering that another coupon sponsor, R U a Pasta Lover (ignore the name), had already been taken over, the value of the Entertainment Book continues to diminish.


Saturday, November 03, 2007

"Glorified bar food": Original Joe's

After work on a hungry Friday, Dickson and I hit one of the restaurants still on my "to try" list in the High Street area. Original Joe's (12520 102 Avenue) looked more plain and less hip than my nearby favorite Urban Diner, but I was still interested to see how this restaurant/bar had sustained itself for so many years.

We arrived at around 7pm, and found the place packed. It had been renovated over the summer, but as this was my first time here, I was unable to discern the changes. The dining area, framed by high wooden beams and aged brick, was anchored by a bar along one side, and supplemented by a pool table in the corner and television screens. It genuinely had the feel of a recreation room or basement of a good friend (reminding me of an adult version of Red Robin's), and with the buzz created by what was undoubtedly for many parties a TGIF celebration, the lofty emotions of an impending weekend were contagious.

The very friendly and efficient host indicated that we would be seated shortly. While we waited, I scanned a 2001 Edmonton Journal review of Original Joe's, written by Scott McKeen likely years before he was given his own editorial column in the paper. While he did use the phrase "glorified bar food" in the article, it was nonetheless a favourable review, if not only for the prices. Back then, a burger cost $6.95, while their signature hot dog plate was $5.95. Oh how things have changed.

After we were seated (at what turned out to be quite a cramped dining space), we perused our options. While I wouldn't dispute McKeen's description of the menu choices, Original Joe's doesn't pretend to be anything more than a casual place to grab a drink and a bite with friends. As well, I was delighted to see that their sandwiches and burger entrees came with not one, but two sides. Dickson ended up with an order of the Hamburger (now $10.99, cheese and mushrooms extra), and I decided upon the Double Dog (now $9.99).

The food understandably took a little longer than expected, but when our plates did arrive, we were pleased with the portion sizes. Dickson commented that his burger was nothing special, but did quite enjoy the mashed potatoes (the sweet potato fries looked better than they tasted - too salty for his liking). My Double Dog came garnished with sauteed onions and fresh tomatoes, but in the end, the flayed European wieners weren't all that satisfying. I would have much preferred the chargrilled Fat Frank at Urban Diner.

With good service, a festive atmosphere, and an unpretentious menu, Original Joe's would work well as the venue for an after work get together or a catch up meal with friends.

Double Dog with French Fries and Caesar Salad sides

Hamburger with Mashed Potatoes and Sweet Potato Fries

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Thursday, November 01, 2007

26th Global Visions Film Festival: "War Dance"

I had seen an ad for the twenty-sixth annual Global Visions Film Festival in early October, and was amazed that this festival had such a long and rich history in the city. After reading about the opening gala film, War Dance, I decided this would be a good year to partake in the events for the first time.

I had purchased tickets in advance from the website about a week prior, which allowed me to skip the line at the Paramount Theatre box office. I picked up my ticket and headed inside.

I haven't been to the Paramount in years, and thinking back, my last trip there was for a screening of Steven Spielberg's A.I., in 2001. I vaguely remember the theatre announcing its closure a few years ago due to a lack of business, and really, with their small audience numbers and seats in dire need of replacement, I wasn't surprised. Then, the City Centre Church announced it would be utilizing the refurbished Paramount space for their weekly services, and thus, the historic gem came back into being.

Inside, the theatre looked great. The chairs had been replaced, the screen looked fantastic, and the stage, in a fashion similar to that of Garneau Theatre, provided the interior with a unique feel of untouchable renaissance never replicated at local multiplexes. I found an agreeable seat on the main floor, and was surprised at the rate that the theatre was being filled up. Another great thing about local festivals, I find, is how friendly attendees are. On this night, I watched as four different people were asked and subsequently agreed to move to accomodate other patrons yet to be seated - something I rarely see at sold-out screenings of first-run movies.

After a warm welcome from the Board President and the Festival Program Director, and a short speech from Lieutenant-Commander Pierre Comeau, who served for a period of time in the Peoples' Republic of Congo and in Ghana to end child soldiering, the film began.

Focused on three Acholi children in the Patongo refugee camp in Northern Uganda, the documentary tells of their personal tragedies as a result of the ongoing conflict with the rebel Lord's Resistance Army, and chronicles their preparation for a national music and dance competition in 2005 - the first time the Patongo school had beat out their regional opponents for a coveted spot at the finals.

The choice to focus on just three children was a good one, as it allowed the audience more time to connect with their stories. A poignant scene with Dominic, a spunky thirteen year old, demonstrated both innocence and maturity as he confronted a captured rebel leader to question him about the wherabouts of his missing older brother, only to find out he was likely killed years ago. A few days before the competition, Nancy, a girl of thirteen, visited the grave of her father who was murdered by rebels four years earlier. She breaks down in a sudden fit of tears, and if not heartbreaking enough, the camera pans to Nancy's mother who reminds her daughter of the necessity to stay strong, as she herself chokes to hold back tears, warning that it 'isn't safe to cry so loud in the bush'; even the normal process of grieving is repressed. Lastly, Rose, a young woman with a haunting voice and a broken soul, tells of the gruesome way in which she discovered the death of her parents - rebels lifted out the decapitated heads of victims to allow family members to identify loved ones, and here, she found the remains of both her mother and father. It is evident, especially with Nancy as a contrast, of how much Rose could use a comforting, reassuring adult presence in her life.

Two things that were a tad unsettling - I did wonder througout as to how the filmmakers were able to extract the stories from the children. I just hope counselling or supports were provided (Dominic, in particular, said that he had never before spoken of the murders he had committed as a child soldier). As well, Rose's relationship with her Aunt was quite possibly an abusive one, and though this was hinted at, was never quite resolved.

With books and media (such as the World Vision One Life Experience or Stephen Lewis' Race Against Time) so focused on the negative out of Africa, it was really uplifing and important to see a story offering some hope and joy. It was such a triumph to be able to watch the final outcome of their preparation and hard work - I couldn't help but smile as the Patongo school was awarded a trophy for first prize in the traditional dance competition.

If you get a chance to watch War Dance, do so. But if it isn't available for rent, be sure to mark your calendar for next year's Global Visions Festival. I have no doubt documentaries of equal calibre, highlighting issues vital to the consciousness of a global citizen, will be offered at its twenty seventh annual event.

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