Optimistically Cautious

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Fringe Opinions: Fringe Festival Town Hall

I seriously considered abandoning Anna on Monday night. With the choice to either return home on a frigid evening or brave the cold and head to the Arts Barns in Old Strathcona, the former was without a doubt the more inviting option. Still, I didn’t want to go back on my word, so I bundled up after work and headed to the Town Hall Meeting organized by the Board and staff of Fringe Theatre Adventures. Advertised as a means to gather comments and suggestions from artists, volunteers and patrons, among other stakeholders, Anna and I were banking on some intense drama to arise from the perceived “us versus them” mentality between the Administration and the “Other”.

After checking in, Anna and I joined about 40 other people seated in the Westbury Theatre. A brief welcome and introductions of the Board quickly led to a description of the meeting format. Al Parsons, Vice President of the Board, would recognize up to four people per round of speakers, each entitled to a three minute comment. The pre-selected topics included: 1) Ticket process and procedure; 2) Grounds and site; 3) Volunteer issues; and 4) Other (the catch-all basin).

I suppose I shouldn’t really comment on the lack of attendance by certain parties who had heavily criticized the new ticketing procedure in the media, as I really wasn’t there to do anything more than passively observe the proceedings, but I was still expecting a larger presence from Edmonton’s artistic heavyweights. That said, there was quite the breadth of representation in the group, from past and current volunteers, patrons, vendors, media (Liz Nicholls and Colin McLean) and a handful of artists (including Fringe favorite Kenneth Brown).

Over the course of the evening, a theme emerged from a majority of the comments - artists and volunteers felt that the Fringe had stopped being about them. These two groups felt ignored, undervalued, and couldn't see themselves represented in Board leadership. From the jilted ex-volunteer Team Lead who claimed he repeated the same ideas of improvement year after year with no results, to the artists who resented not only the inability to usher in last-minute ticket sales at the door, but also having the opportunity to market through posters and handbilling patrons at the beer tents withdrawn.

Some less obvious effects of top-down decisions were made clear by the green onion cake and mini doughnut vendors, and provided a perspective I had never before considered. When the busker circles were moved away from their stands, they noticed a significant difference in their profits. When they approached staff about the changes to the site layout, they were confused with the response that "vendors had requested that their areas remain congestion free." The vendors had already met amongst themselves and decided unanimously that more traffic ultimately meant more business potential.

Along with the very vocal opinions were several good suggestions from the audience. While everyone expressed that the online ticketing system was a plus, changes had to be made. For example, setting up two lines at the advance ticketing booths (one for express pick up and the other for general purchases). As well, a percentage of tickets should be held at the door (10-25%), or, at a set time before the show, all unsold tickets should be returned to the door (a tactic that would make better use of otherwise drifting Front of House volunteers).

Ken Brown, the penultimate speaker, really stayed with me, and not just because of his status in the Edmonton theatre community. He had been involved since the first Festival, he said, and in the last 25 years, last year's Fringe was the worst in his entire experience. He even essentially offered a thinly veiled threat that if something drastic wasn't done, he would be taking his "gems" elsewhere.

At the end of the meeting, the Board President actually read from a prepared statement, but did end it with an improvised note that the Board would take the issues expressed into consideration, and as standard for such an administration, would produce a report in a few months with recommendations.

For the sake of the Festival, one that has grown to such prosperity and currently maintains a worldwide reputation for great theatre, an inclusive philosophy, and an atmosphere unrivalled in North America, it would be a shame if last year's changing of the guard results in a continued downward spiral.

At any rate, I will be eagerly looking forward to The Big Kahuna, and not just for the plays.

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Cooking Chronicles: Sunday Dinner

I decided to be ambitious this weekend and make dinner for my family on Sunday night. From recipes I assembled from a few sources, I decided on a menu of Potato and Onion Flatbread (Real Simple Celebrations), Brown Sugar-Glazed Carrots (Betty Crocker), and Bison Meatloaf (Jan/Feb 2008 City Palate).

As usual when multiple dishes are at play, it took me a lot longer than expected. The meatloaf was a pretty straightforward mix-and-bake recipe (just remind me to ask my sous chef sister to prepare the onions for me next time). I thought I would have enough time to make my two sides while the meatloaf was in the oven, but I miscalculated slightly. I assembled the flatbread from frozen bread dough (leftover from the package I bought for the Rocky Road Pizza), browned onions, sliced potatoes and a dash of dried rosemary. While that finished baking, I boiled carrot slices which would then be coated with a reduced brown sugar and butter mixture.

Thankfully by 8pm, I had dinner on the table. The meatloaf was actually the tastiest of the bunch (though it doesn't look that way in the picture) - not too dry, with some added texture from the chopped vegetables. Some dried herbs would have provided an extra flavour boost, however. The carrots were soft and sweet, though I could have done without the citrus tang of the orange zest. As for the flatbread, I chalked it up to another failure of the prepared bread dough: it had already browned, but was still partially uncooked on the bottom. My Mum expressed a preference for an onion-only topping, as the potatoes weren't given enough time to soften in the oven.

In the end, my family appreciated my efforts, and I was able to experiment with a few more recipes.

My plate of Potato and Onion Flatbread, Brown Sugar-Glazed Carrots, and Bison Meatloaf

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Random Notes

  • Joining the ranks of Dinner Revolution and Passionate Plate is Tasty TakeAways. Profiled in this week's Vue Weekly, it is another local venture offering pre-packaged meals for those seeking home cooked goodness in the midst of their busy lives.
  • Lining up for my morning fix last week at Starbucks, I encountered a young man handcuffed to a coffee stand claiming he wanted to be considered their "customer of the month." The police actually showed up a few minutes later, but it turned out it was just a stunt by a Bounce intern. So random.
  • More on Starbucks: due to pressure from retailers, Starbucks is testing $1 "short" drip coffees and free refills in the Seattle area.
  • I subscribe to an electronic mailing list advertising events taking place at the City of Edmonton Attractions, and even I had to do a double take when I read this one: speed dating for local singles at the zoo. Sure, the idea might be novel, but I found the image of singles mingling among cages quite amusing.
  • In a case of unfortunate timing (or clever scheduling?), look at what's playing at Metro Cinema on Valentine's Day.
  • 4 teams are set to begin the regular season in Europe next year. Perhaps it would have been a good idea for the NHL to consult the NHLPA first.
  • Even though the polls made such results inevitable, I am still disappointed that Hillary Clinton had such a poor showing in South Carolina on Saturday. Still, I remain cautiously optimistic as the countdown to Super Tuesday begins.

The Cooking Chronicles: Banana Rocky Road Pizza

When I asked Mack what type of fruit dessert he wanted to make, the only palpable suggestion I received was to "use bananas." I did a quick recipe search on Food Network Canada's database, and generated one of Ricardo's creations, a Rocky Road Pizza.

We modified it slightly, substituting Coffee Crisp for Toblerone, adding bananas and eliminating the almonds all together. We copped out and bought frozen bread dough to use as the base, though after a mishap in the microwave (it really is a good idea to read and not scan instructions, otherwise, one might miss the operative word "defrost"), I would probably forgo convenience and make the dough from scratch next time.

As the dough had already partially cooked in the microwave, it was difficult to roll flat, and as a result, the pizza poofed in the wrong places during the baking phase. Still, the final product was better than we could have hoped for: the Coffee Crisp added a nice crunch, and the browned marshmallows rounded out the sweetness factor. Both my family and Mack commented that vanilla ice cream or whipped cream would have been a great final touch, as the slices were a tad dry on their own.

This would be a great recipe to put together with kids, and really, the possible topping combinations are endless!

Proof that Mack contributed to the final product

Close up shot (the rest of the photo set is here)

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Ice on Whyte 2008

While on a brief shopping excursion on Whyte Ave today, I made a detour to the Ice on Whyte Festival taking place at Adventure Park.

I didn't stay that long, because while it wasn't as cold as last year, it was quickly getting there.

Quick pictures I snapped:

Sculpture that won first prize

Another sculpture

A much larger castle than last year

Ice screen for movies (a "cold-in"?)

Slide of death (so named because of my "incident" last year)

I don't really have much to say, as I didn't stick around long enough to really explore the activities, but for those interested, the Festival runs until Sunday.

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Citadel Theatre: "Beauty and the Beast"

I'd like to think I'm a bit of a reverse snob when it comes to theatre - I overlook the Citadel in favour of community companies like Shadow and Teatro la Quindicina. Of course, the fact that I am an admitted cheapskate when it comes to ticket prices also has something to do with this, and the only reason I have even set foot in the theatre (to see A Christmas Carol), was actually because the tickets were purchased by my friends. So when Dickson invited me to see Beauty and the Beast with tickets he had bid for in a charity auction at work, I jumped at the chance to "see what I was missing."

While waiting for the show to begin, I did a bit of local celebrity spotting. It seemed to be media night, as the Journal's Liz Nicholls, the Sun/CBC's Colin McLean, Global's Lorraine Mansbridge and Edmonton Opera's Artistic Director were all on hand (my question - did Nicholls' mid-centre seats represent her relative review power? McLean was seated to the far left of the stage, quite the snub, in my opinion). The house was filled with a fair number of children - and after seeing the show (ignoring the expense), I could see why - it is a great way to expose young children to the spectacle and possibilities of theatre.

I loved the cartoon-tinged set, and was amazed at what they were able to do with such a small space. The costumes were impressive for the most part (the gold and silver theme was rich, eye-catching, and coupled with a reliance on yellow lighting tones, gave the scenes a necessary mystical quality about them), with my favorite of the household items being the functional wardrobe and the napkins. I had to wonder, however, about the choice to dress Belle in an oval-shaped hoop dress as opposed to a more flowing ensemble in the last half. I would have preferred a gown that moved with her and the Beast while they danced - another mainstay of fairytale romance sequences.

The songs were catchy (I wanted to run home and listen to whatever version of "Beauty and the Beast" I could get my hands on), and while I agree that the Citadel should be lauded for the incredible feat of "Be Our Guest", I was actually most drawn to "Gaston", if not only because I was absolutely craving a dance number by then. The Beast's solo, "If I Can't Love Her" was a weak way to end the first act, but plot-wise, it did make sense. And while I understand the constraints of time (especially with a children's production), the jump to an immediate love connection in "Something There" in the opening of Act 2 was much too sudden.

The cast as a whole had excellent comic timing, but more than that, they seemed to have a great time with the play. Standouts: Kharytia Bilash as Belle (fabulous voice and spunk to boot!), John Ullyatt as a hilariously sexual Lumiere, Sean Hauk as a hyperbolized Gaston, and last but not least, the very agile and acrobatic Colin Heath as LeFou.

Beyond the ticket prices, going to a show is more than a stand alone experience for me. I really do enjoy following the theatre community in Edmonton: knowing which playwrights are up-and-coming, getting a feel for the flavour of a theatre company, and most of all, having the privilege to see the same consistent talents on stage. The majority of the Citadel's Mainstage cast are brought in from other cities, and while I understand the need to do this, I don't think I could ever build a "rapport" with the Citadel if the faces and names are revolving on a continuous basis.

So while I enjoyed the show, unless someone extends a free invitation to me again, I doubt I will be back at the Citadel in the near future.

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Nothing Special: Sorrentino's

For a pre-show dinner within walking distance of the theatre, Dickson and I met up at Sorrentino’s (10162 100 Street) on Thursday night. I had visited this location many years ago in my university days, but don’t recall anything of note from that experience. That said, I knew that of all the locations, this was the swankiest, something reflected in the prices.

Upon entry, my coat was taken by the host (that’s post-New York number three), and I was led to a table in the back corner, along a glass wall that separated a private dining room from the main seating area. When Dickson arrived, we found out just how inconvenient this spot was, as his chair was knocked about more than a few times from patrons streaming into the private room. As the restaurant was chock full of empty tables and cozy booths at that time, we probably should have been proactive and requested a seat change, but it was curious as to why they chose to seat us in a spot seemingly earmarked for those deemed unworthy.

Menus at each location differ slightly for one another (in both selection and price), but the range of pastas, fish and meat entrees would appease any palette. I had read on Chowhound that Downtown's Bison Cannelloni (as opposed to the more traditional veal-based filling) was worth a try, so it wasn't hard for me to make a decision. Dickson was tempted by the fish special, but ended up choosing the Roasted Guinea Hen Portofino, stuffed with shrimp, prosciutto, provolone, mustard seed, and served in a vermouth cream reduction (for the record, he thought briefly about asking for lobster in place of shrimp).

Before our entrees arrived, our waitress (who was obviously new and very keen) offered us slices of warm bread and a chili and salt-infused olive oil for dipping. Dickson wasn't impressed, and preferred the salted baguette offered at the southside location.

The wild mushroom reduction on my Cannelloni was creamy goodness, but the spiced ground bison was out of place; it probably would have been more suited for lasagna...or a taco. Dickson's chicken was a bit on the dry side, though he did enjoy the rather peculiar addition of seafood to the dish.

For an Edmonton stalwart, I have yet to be blown away by Sorrentino's. Dare I say it is encroaching Earl's territory, being both overhyped and unexceptional?

Nearly-empty interior

Bison Canneloni

Roasted Guinea Hen Portofino

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Random Notes

  • Mack posted about this last week, but Zagat has been put up for sale. While I don't think the expansion of the Michelin guides to North America poses that much of a threat to the empire Zagat has built in the United States, it might not be a bad idea for the brand to add dimensions or services in order to attract new followers.
  • There's a good interview with the purveyors of Leva Cafe at the Original Fare site. Speaking of Original Fare, most of the menus for the upcoming Fork Fest have finally been released (someone needs to demand more prompt information delivery; the event started today without all restaurants submitting menus), and The Blue Pear looks like the best bet. Their tasting menus are normally priced at $85, so $35 is a steal.
  • Since wringing my hands with the coat check tipping question, I decided to look into it, and came across this New York Times article. It seems the standard is $1 per article (coat, bag, umbrella), though judging by the comments, not everyone agrees with this suggestion.
  • Anna and I are planning to attend the upcoming Fringe Town Hall, taking place in the Arts Barns on January 28. While we both don't feel the need to share our opinions on the changes that took place at last year's festival, we're hoping to see some theatre play out on stage - artists vs. the Artistic Director.
  • Mack and I made a quick stop at the giant Stanley Cup situated in the parking lot of United Cycle last week. It felt beyond tourist-y to pose for photographs, but it was also too cool to pass up.

Mack and Stanley

Me with Stanley

Tidbits: Notes from Edmonton's Epicurean Scene

With the void of local food reporting left by Judy Schultz (the Journal's Liane Faulder will be taking on the post later this year; in the meantime, they have been gleaning material from other CanWest affiliates), I will be relying on City Palate (in addition to Vue Weekly and See Magazine) for updates on Edmonton's food scene.
  • An ad in the January/February edition of City Palate indicates that the Lazia Group's Wildflower Grill (plagued by construction delays) is set to open in February. After so many start-stops, I will believe it when I see it.

  • There's a new Mexican restaurant in town: Mexico Lindo (16604 109 Avenue) is now open in Mayfield Plaza.

  • Along the lines of Tokyo Express, the new Asian Rice Bowl Express (8924 149 Street) offers quick, "healthy" meal options.

  • My coworker Sharon asked me if I knew anything about a new restaurant in the LeMarchand Mansion, and I didn't at the time. Then I read about the Tazzi Cafe (111, 11523 100 Avenue). City Palate notes to "expect casual eastern Mediterranean flavours with a Greek and Arabic accent." Only open until 5pm at the moment, they are planning for a dinner menu in the near future.

  • As reported in Avenue Magazine, it seems Fat Franks has moved indoors to occupy a permanent space inside the Commerce Place food court. I haven't been down there in ages - anyone else?

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Lukewarm Reception: Violino

On the heels of our great meal at Violino (10133 125 Street) two weeks ago, Annie decided that she wanted to hold her birthday celebration there this year. Though she had called too late to book the private room upstairs, our party of 7 were comfortably seated at a quiet table on the main floor. Violino was notably busier than our last visit, with a Sienna Collins-hosted fundraiser taking place on the second floor, and the University of Alberta President Indira Samarasekera having dinner just a few tables away.

The menu had changed slightly (they eliminated the Carbonara from their pasta section and added a 24K gold leaf cake to their dessert list), but Annie and I were both happy to see that the Risotto con Funghi was still on the menu.

We also ordered wine that evening, settling on a Chilean Merlot. That was the start of rather curt service from our waitress, who was impatient from the get-go, returning much too frequently for our drink orders as individual guests arrived, and not offering even the semblance of a smile or friendliness in our interaction. When we asked her to exchange our teapots of lukewarm water for water more conducive for tea, she was abrupt and rather rude about what was clearly her mistake. It would be a shame if Violino lost return customers due to her less-than-warm demeanor.

As for the food - Annie thought the risotto was better this time around, but I thought it was comparable with our last meal. Mack enjoyed his Tiger Striped Agnulotti with Lobster (served with a really generous amount of seafood, and was the best value at $26), while Dickson didn't think very highly of his Ziti Al Forno.

The very friendly host brought out Annie's candle-topped cake (leading us in a "rousing" rendition of "Happy Birthday"), and helped serve slices of the cake to everyone at the table. We did linger for quite a while (despite telling glances from our steely-eyed waitress), and though we may have overstayed our welcome slightly, it was nice to chat in a dining room that had nearly emptied out by 10.

While I won't let this experience color my overall positive impression of Violino, I would be interested to see what a third visit would bring. In any case, it was a lovely dinner, Annie - happy birthday!

Tiger Striped Agnulotti with Lobster

Ziti Al Forno

Birthday girl

Janice and May

Me and Mack

Mack and Dickson

Andres and Annie

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Quotable People: Installment Eight

After getting used to having a daily quote to look forward to, I bought another one of those page-a-day calendars. Instead of offering a female perspective, this calendar provides sentimental nuggets about friendship, some quite cheesy. Here are some only borderline-cheesy thoughts:
  • "Friendship isn’t a big thing – it’s a million little things." - Anonymous

  • "A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him, I may think aloud." – Ralph Waldo Emerson

  • "When someone tells you the truth, lets you think for yourself, experience your own emotions, he is treating you as a true equal. As a friend." – Whitney Otto

  • "True friendship comes when silence between two people is comfortable." – Dave Tyson Gentry

  • "Friendship is like a bank account: you cannot continue to draw on it without making deposits." - Anonymous

  • "I value the friend who for me finds time on his calendar, but I cherish the friend who for me does not consult his calendar." – Robert Brault


Thursday, January 17, 2008

Workshop West: "The Mighty Carlins"

The return of Workshop West from financial oblivion was much heralded in the media, and I am certain the title of their current series, "True Grit", is as much a reference to the company's resurrection as to the content of their productions.

Piqued by the choice of Mill Woods as the setting of The Mighty Carlins, I asked Mack to join me for a pay-what-you-can showing on Tuesday night. From the website:

"On the anniversary of his wife's death, Leo Carlin and his two adult sons come together for their traditional night of drinking until they can't stand, reminiscing until they can't remember, and accusing each other of horrible things until they are bonded together as a family once again."

Walking out of this play, Mack immediately commented on the amount of yelling that had taken place, while I was glad to be out of a space surging with testosterone - the three men were relentless in their display of aggression, one-upsmanship, and macho behavior. It was clear that Carlins is not for the faint of heart - between the language, the drinking, and continuous references to sex, this wasn't a play for everyone. That said, such a framework couldn't be avoided; this was the reality of relating to each other for these men. An undertone of blame and guilt was a subtext of the entire play - with Leo's son Mike in particular questioning his father's role in his wife's death. The resolution, albeit tinged with a sad truth, was all too brief given the build-up towards the confrontation.

What small misgivings I had about the script were more than made up for by the stellar performances, however. Veteran John Wright as the snarky father was a presence and force to be reckoned with throughout: stalwart, stubborn and feisty. James Hamilton (who reminded me very much of Chris Fassbender in this role) was fantastically vulnerable and pathetically spineless, and displayed to a T all of the internalized mannerisms by the bullied, picked-on member of the family.

While set in Mill Woods, this could have taken place in any suburb in any major city, with the reference to the "hour long bus ride" and numerous drive-by shootings seeming more like a gimmick than anything else. And oh the drinking - Mack and I wondered how the men were able to avoid running to the bathroom after opening and "consuming" at least fifty cans of beer over the course of the show.

This was my first Workshop West show, so if The Mighty Carlins is any indication of the content they gravitate towards, its productions are a departure for my admittedly narrow theatre experiments. Of course, I will still keep my eye on their schedule, and at the very least, offer them the congratulations they deserve for giving up-and-coming playwrights a platform for expression.

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"The Last Great Hamburger Stand": Fatburger

Always ready to try the new restaurant on the block, Mack and I originally planned to visit Fatburger (1755 102 Street) on the weekend. However, deterred by a long line up and a movie showtime, we decided to save our burger stand experience for a less busy occasion.

So although it was out of the way on Tuesday, we made our way there after work. By 6, quite the line started to form - I'm sure this location will be fending off curious customers for a while yet. Upon entry, we ordered a Fat Deal and a Chicken Deal (combos including "skinny" fries and a drink), which were called out, and repeated, Starbucks-barista-style, to the employees stationed at the grill. We were then handed paper cups to fill with soda ourselves, and a number to display on our table so that our food could be delivered to us.

While waiting, I surveyed the decor: friendly and fun, with red-dressed booths, a checkered floor, jukebox, and flat-screen televisions, it was basically a "modernized" retro diner. The washrooms were exceptionally clean, very surprising for a fast-food establishment, with tile pictures of male celebrities on the wall in the women's toilet and vice versa for the men.

A tray was brought to us a few minutes later. My chicken burger wasn't bad, and the fries were reminiscent of Wendy's, but with a combo price ($9.99) and quality comparable to Red Robin's, I think I'd likely choose the latter, if not only for their bottomless baskets of "fat" fries. That said, we will be back at some point to at least try out their homemade onion rings (fresh made every morning, supposedly), and for Mack to garnish a future burger with a fried egg.

Give Fatburger a whirl, but in the end, it really is just a burger.


Chicken Deal (with a massive cup of ketchup)

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Random Notes

  • Prison Break is back on Monday! But perhaps they should have just held on to the remaining episodes until filming resumed...another (likely lengthy) hiatus won't be easy to take.
  • I watched Juno last night, and really enjoyed it. I'm so proud of the fact that both Ellen Page and Michael Cera are Canadian, and happy that they are receiving recognition of their talents from the press. The always funny Allison Janney is also in the film, and is deadpan with one of her best lines to Juno as she begs for an epidural: "Doctors are sadists who like to play God and laugh at the lesser peoples' pain."
  • The restaurants of Original Fare are offering their own version of Restaurant Week called the "Festival of Forks". Fixed menus go for either $25 or $35 - check it out!
  • I'm not sure why I'm mentioning this, because I don't put any credence into their selections (like last year), but since it's out there in the media: Where Edmonton's survey of Most Memorable Meals in 2007 is out. While I can't dispute some of the categories due to a lack of first hand experience (I've never been to either Ric's Grill or Von's Steak House, for example), I can say that the only category I wholeheartedly agree with is Fine Dining (Hardware Grill).
  • In stark contrast to Andrea's review last year, a Vue Weekly writer loved Phobulous. I still haven't been there, so I can't dispute either opinion, but the difference between the two experiences is an irreconcilable valley.
  • I tried a Skinny Latte this week, and it tasted like steamed milk with a flavour shot. I don't buy espresso-based drinks that often, so when I do, it is an indulgence; the 90 calorie selling point doesn't really matter to me in the end.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Strip Mall Elegance: Jack's Grill

After New York, I thought it'd be best to avoid "fancy" restaurants for a while - not because I don't enjoy being catered to necessarily, but because I feel I've enjoyed my share of fine dining for several months. When May suggested we try out Jack's Grill (primarily because she had a gift certificate that would cover about half our meal costs), I agreed, but knew that if their hospitality matched their menu prices, my verdict of the restaurant would be influenced by my desire for anything but formal dining.

Located in a Lendrum strip mall (5842 111 Street), a rather unusual spot for a high-end eatery, it is easily missed due to an exterior that blends in with neighbouring merchants. Upon entry, I was greeted by a friendly hostess who immediately took my coat (I can't seem to get away from mandatory coat checks) and seated me at a table alongside a wall of windows. Whoever designed the restaurant should be commended for not only the placement of glass, but also for the inclusion of a garden of sorts outside the window. With a parallel bank of trees decorated with twinkle lights, if led in blindfolded, diners would never guess that Jack's Grill was situated in a strip mall to begin with.

May arrived soon after, and we took our time with the one page menu. We skipped over the appetizers directly to the entrees. May decided to try the Slow Braised Lamb Shank ($32), while the Chinook Salmon ($36) as described by the waiter sounded too good to pass up.

While we waited for our plates, May and I were both surprised at how busy the restaurant was over the course of the evening. Though never completely full, I didn't think those with expensive tastes would wander out of the downtown core to feed their hunger for gourmet cuisine.

May's lamb was perfectly prepared - tender off the bone. She didn't like the accompanying braised cabbage or gremolata much, but finished it all the same. My salmon was good, but the butter sauce it came in was better (it's pretty difficult to mess up pan fried fish, I find).

Service was decent throughout (including the server who refolded our napkins while we were away from the table), and our water glasses were never less than half full. Still, without a gift certificate in hand, I would be hard pressed to return to Jack's Grill. There are better fine dining options in Edmonton (Hardware Grill, for example) that I would turn to first on occasions requiring a high standard of excellence.


Dining room

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Cooking Chronicles: Eggnog Cookies

Birthdays provide another great excuse to try out new recipes. I bought a copy of Company's Coming: Christmas Gifts from the Kitchen a few months ago (I love the dry mix ideas), and in it was an unusual recipe for Eggnog Cookies.

While I'm not a huge fan of eggnog, Mack is, and I decided a batch would be a good start for his (belated) birthday present. Being drop cookies, it was an easy batter to put together, though I had to omit the rum/brandy addition, as we didn't have any on hand. The cookies turned out all right, mostly circular, and looked better with a drizzle of eggnog icing and colored sugar (a piping bag would have allowed for more consistent decoration, but I found a fork easier to use).

I can't comment too much on the taste because of my bias, except to say that they had quite a strong nutmeg flavour to them. Mack seemed to like them enough, so as gifts go, I'd consider making them again for those who like eggnog.

Eggnog Cookies

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Monday, January 07, 2008

Film: "Waitress"

I watched Waitress over the weekend, a quirky, independent film about Jenna, a small-town girl (played by Felicity's Keri Russell) with an exceptional pie-baking aptitude and dreams of leaving her husband.

There's a lot to love about this movie - from Jenna's creative pie names (e.g. "I don't want Earl's baby pie") to the comedic supporting characters (Cheryl Hines and Adrienne Shelly are a riot) to the tender letters Jenna writes to her unborn child, Waitress pulls at the heartstrings all while offering hard truths and striking realities. Russell is a vision in this movie, somehow remaining grounded and believable in an off-beat world. This was my first screen encounter with Edmonton-born Nathan Fillion, and while I can see how he could fit the bill as a tempting escape for Jenna, I wasn't as impressed with him as I thought I would be.

In one of the DVD features, Russell indicates that she decided to sign on to the project when she read one of the voiceover lines that comes near the end of the movie. It's wonderfully lovely, and though I can't quite do the line justice in blog form, it's still worth repeating here:

"Dear Baby, I hope someday somebody wants to hold you for 20 minutes straight and that's all they do. They don't pull away. They don't look at your face. They don't try to kiss you. All they do is wrap you up in their arms without an ounce of selfishness in it."

Waitress is a sweet comedy perfect for that lazy Sunday afternoon.


The Best Pho in Town: Pagolac

It's been a while since I've been to Pagolac, as I had been frequenting Doan's to satify my pho craving. My last few trips to Doan's have been disappointing, however - the beef stock seemed to have increased in salt content and did not appear to have been made from scratch (boullion cubes, anyone?).

I was hoping Pagolac hadn't gone downhill in the time I had been away, and I am happy to report that they still offer the best pho in the city! My bowl didn't have cilantro (boo), but other than that, I couldn't complain about anything. Their servers always amaze me too - super efficient even in a packed house.

Inexpensive and consistent, Pagolac is still my recommentation for reliable, cheap eats.

Pho with medium sliced beef

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Sunday, January 06, 2008

Random Notes

  • Starbucks introduced their "Skinny Lattes" this week, made with skim milk and sugar free syrup. When Second Cup added the word "skinny" to their menu, I wasn't impressed, and the same applies to Starbucks - what is wrong with ordering a custom latte the old fashioned way? Moreover, they have added a "How nutritious is your latte?" quiz onto their website's front page. As if anyone ordering such a coffee is looking to boost their daily intake of vitamins with a hit of caffiene.
  • Christopher Thrall is leaving his cushy position as the resident restaurant critic at Vue Weekly. In his last piece, he cites both dinner at PiccoLino and brunch at Bacon as some of his best meals in the city, period. I'm now interested in trying both.
  • There's an interesting read over at Zagat: a round-up of quotations from restauranteurs and chefs about what they want to see more - and less - of in 2008. To Roland Passot, who dislikes the trend of blogging from non-food professionals, I say - no restaurant will ever please every diner, but to shy away from the opinion of the "common man" demonstrates a lack of respect for the everyday customer and an unwillingness to hear criticism from anyone who he may judge to be an untrained gourmand. I have lost any interest I may have had in visiting his establishment.
  • I've been swept up in the fervor of the American primaries. It almost makes me want to run out and buy Season 7 of The West Wing in order to relive fictional election madness.
  • The program for this year's International Week at the University of Alberta is up. Notably, Jeffrey Sachs, author of The End of Poverty, will be speaking on January 31st. See you there!
  • The amount of anticipation for Catalyst's remount of Frankenstein next month is just incredible. Tickets are selling fast; get to Tix on the Square soon if you're planning to catch what some have been calling the best locally-produced show ever.
  • It's now the end of the first week of January, and there still hasn't been any word from Teatro la Quindicina about their new season. I'm worried.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

A Little Slice of Europe: Bistro Praha

A few friends and I met up at Bistro Praha (10168 100A Street) for a late afternoon dinner on Saturday. I hadn't been back to the restaurant in some years, though I had been a frequent patron there in my late high school and early university days. The Rice Howard Way strip hosts a number of independent, ethnic eateries, including La Table de Renoir (French), Co Co Di (Lebanese), It's All Greek to Me (what else but Greek), and the Eastern European fare of Bistro Praha.

Small but cozy, Bistro Praha always seems to have a few groups of regulars in addition to more curious diners. With a prominent bar and counter along one side and furniture that could have been pulled from an old family pub, the dining room is comfortable and feels familiar somehow. Lighting is dim, but conducive, it seems, to the camaraderie of more boisterous customers, but protective also of the intimate conversations taking place at the tables for two.

I wish I could provide more detail about the menu items, but truth be told, I've always ordered the same entree - the Wiener Schnitzel "Cordon Bleu" (a slice of veal, edam cheese and ham breaded then fried). Served with green and potato salads, the meal is consistently satisfying. I decided to order the full plate, though when it arrived, I realized that in the past, I had only asked for the half order - the schnitzel was huge! Still, I managed to eat every crispy and tasty bite - a microwaved portion of leftovers really wouldn't have done the dish justice.

Stuffed, I wasn't able to order dessert, but the rest of the girls did. Janice said Bistro Praha's crepes were better than those served at The Creperie.

It was a nice meal overall - good food, attentive service, and not a bad place to catch up with friends. If you're in the area, give Bistro Praha a try!

Restaurant interior

Wiener Schnitzel "Cordon Bleu"

Peach Crepe

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Delicious and Divine: Violino

After reading a few positive reviews about Violino (10133 125 Street), a new-ish restaurant in the High Street area, I suggested that Annie and I give it a try on Friday night.

Located in what appears to be a renovated house, we were greeted upon arrival by a host who took our coats (after New York, I am terrified by coat checks). He led us to the second floor dining area, and at that time, we were only the second party in the restaurant (while it was never full, more patrons arrived over the course of the evening).

Annie and I both loved the decor - red tapestries, cream seat covers, and the nicest bathroom either of us had seen in a long time (I'm a sucker for those bowl-shaped sinks that sit atop counters). My only nitpick was the prevalence of music-themed art throughout the restaurant; two or three pieces would have been subtle, but we seemed to encounter another sculpture every time we turned around.

Wanting to leave room for dessert, we bypassed the appetizers and denser entrees, opting instead for the Risotto con Funghi (risotto and wild mushroom melange, parmesan cheese, mixed herbs and laced with truffle oil). I am pleased to say that our server was great under the circumstances; she was assigned the entire second level, and was swamped, but did her best to provide attentive and timely service.

Our food arrived in a positively aromatic cloud and our server confirmed that we were noticing the truffle oil. In short, the risotto was divine. Rich and savoury, but not overly salty, the rice was a creamy bit of heaven.

To end our meal, we each ordered the Espresso Tiramisu and an accompanying cup of tea. Beautifully presented, with an artfully placed wafer and a single raspberry, the cake did not taste heavy, unlike versions at other Italian restaurants. The marscapone cheese blended wonderfully with the espresso-soaked biscuits, and I found the chocolate syrup garnish a nice sweet touch.

While not inexpensive, our indulgence at Violino was well worth it.

Restaurant Exterior

Annie and her Risotto

Espresso Tiramisu

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Who's in goal?!

Checking the score for the Canada-U.S. World Juniors semifinal yesterday, it was clear that the TSN live scoreboard wasn't functioning properly. But take a look at who was listed as "Canada's Starting Goalie":

Listing Marc-Andre Fleury, who committed the game-losing gaffe in 2004 against the States, seemed like a bad omen.

But as the team just won against Sweden (in overtime, after giving up a 2-0 lead after two periods), it turned out to be just an off mistake. Congrats to the 2008 champions!


Thursday, January 03, 2008

2007: A Year of Culinary Highlights

2007 was a great year. For food, that is.

I was fortunae enough to travel to Europe this summer, and to New York in December. At home in Edmonton, I sampled the fare at several new restaurants (or at least, "new" to me), and discovered some now-favorites.

In no particular order, here are a few of my culinary highlights from the past year.

  • Eating the best pizza of my life first at Vancouver's Bridges, then in a small sidestreet restaurant in Florence.

  • Asiago, Parmesan and Mozzerella Pizza from Bridges

    Navona Notte from a restaurant with that namesake

  • (With Mack's help) Throwing my first ever dinner party!

  • Panna Cotta amidst a candlelit table

  • Many a good meal at my beloved Blue Plate Diner.

  • Comfort food at its best - the Herbed Meatloaf from Blue Plate Diner

  • The discovery of a stellar diner in Calgary, a wonderful lunch spot in downtown Edmonton, a historic house for more than just tea, a comfortable greasy spoon, and a chic cafe for fab pizza and panini sandwiches.

  • Frittata from Diner Deluxe

    Chicken Cordon Bleu from Shine Bistro

    Cranberry Brie Sandwich from Arbor Restaurant in Rutherford House

    Poutine from Route 99 Diner

    Vegetarian Panini Sandwich from Leva Capuccino Bar

  • Exhausting my cupcake phase: first in Calgary; then in Vancouver; Edmonton; and finally New York (and of course, I made my own too).

  • From Calgary's Buttercream Bakeshoppe

    From Calgary's Crave

    From Vancouver's Cupcakes

    From Edmonton's Whimsical Cupcakes

    From New York's Magnolia Bakery

    An Ina Garten recipe for Chocolate Cupcakes with Peanut Butter Icing

  • Experiencing the gold standard for eating out at Becco in New York, which balanced the line between fine dining and comfort.

Outside Becco

  • An invitation to participate in a Market Fresh Cooking Class with Judy Schultz and Gail Hall, which started to get me thinking about seasonal cooking and utilizing farmer's markets.

With my fellow Journal winners, Gail Hall, and Judy Schultz

I can't wait to see what's in store for 2008!

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