Optimistically Cautious

Friday, February 29, 2008

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Lighter Classics, From the Heart of Broadway

Dickson had been looking forward to the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra's From the Heart of Broadway edition of Lighter Classics for some time, and I was eager to see what Sheri Somerville could do on a non-theatrical stage.

After a few concerts, I now know that my personal enjoyment of the symphony hinges on: 1) whether I recognize or have a prior connection to the music; and 2) have non-music distractions to focus on. The only song that I had heard before was parts of Oklahoma!, but other than that, the majority of the pieces were too slow for my sleep-deprived brain to follow. The upbeat, brass heavy songs were my favorite - so much so that I kept wishing they would reprieve some of the Big Band jazz from the concert I attended earlier in February. Thankfully, James Campbell on the clarinet was a saving grace of sorts - an undeniable talent, his encore was much appreciated.

As for Somerville, her attempts at opera-fying Porter and Gershwin tunes were miserable failures. Dickson said it sounded as if she had a cold, or was trying to sing with something stuck in her throat, and I couldn't disagree - her efforts at falsetto were misplaced. As such, I thought she was completely the wrong choice for the type of songs she was asked to sing...until "Worst Pies in London" from Sweeney Tood. Part acting, part singing, she nailed it, though the cheekiness of the song helped as well.

William Eddins conducted this concert, and watching him is always a treat. While he didn't jump on the stage this time around, he is always a wonderful host, vibrant and deeply passionate about music. He would undoubtedly make a great dinner party guest! Dickson was really impressed by his ability to simultaneously play the piano and conduct. (On a related note, he will be guest conducting Porgy & Bess in Lyon in May, and invited those in the audience to join him in France. He offered a free ticket to the concert, as well as a dinner together in September. Any takers?)

While I can't say I wholeheartedly enjoyed this concert, the ESO continues to amaze me with their sheer number of events, and consistent ability to pack the house. I really relish my membership in the Pulse8 Club for providing these inexpensive opportunities of exposure to the symphony and its surrounding music community.

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Appearances Can Be Deceiving: The Golden Bird

"This is it?"
"I’ve driven down this street hundreds of times and have never noticed it before!"

The Golden Bird (10544 97 Street) features a storefront so aged that it literally blends with its surroundings, resembling one of those sad ghosts of a business that reflects only a past of prosperity. Of course, even if the exterior didn’t suffer from neglect, the surrounding block of merchants would make it difficult to maintain the sheen expected of a restaurant with a name that conjures up images of phoenixes in flight. Still, the reputation of The Golden Bird precedes itself; coworkers of both Dickson and I have personally recommended their brand of Vietnamese and Chinese cuisine to us.

On Thursday, we made our way to Chinatown, found some parking at the rear of the building, and walked inside. As my colleague had warned me, the interior was in serious need of a Restaurant Makeover. I didn’t mind their penchant for outdated and cheap art (Kim Andersen prints), but I do think that their furniture could use a major overhaul. Dirty from years of use, the chairs were coated with grime. The tables were topped with glass, and underneath, as custom with many ethnic eateries, were copies of outdated reviews from local news media. The articles indicated The Golden Bird does most of its business at lunch (both takeout and dining in), which seemed to be true, as the restaurant had just two patrons as we sat down. But through the course of our meal, other tables filled up with families, groups of friends, and couples, most of them appearing to be regulars.

The menu featured standard Vietnamese and Chinese fare (and interestingly named dishes, such as the 5 Colour on Rice or Vermicelli), but as Dickson and I are both pho enthusiasts, we jumped straight to the noodle soup section. My decision was an easy one – I always opt for the bowl featuring medium rare sliced beef ($7.50), while Dickson typically selects whatever the house special is. In this case, it was the Golden Bird Beef Noodle Soup ($8.50), with all kinds of meat but no egg. For comparison purposes, we also added an order of green onion cakes ($3.95).

Asian restaurants are known for two things: cheap eats and quick kitchen-to-table service. The Golden Bird was no different. Our green onion cakes arrived promptly, still glistening from their deep-fried treatment. I found the cake itself to be quite doughy, and needing just a tad more salt, but they were still a satisfying and promising start to our meal.

Our noodle soup bowls arrived even before we had a chance to finish our appetizer, steaming hot and inviting on a winter’s night. Shredded cilantro, green onion slices and slivers of red onions floated on top in a lovely medley of fragrance and flavour. I was a tad disappointed in the small quantity and toughness of the meat, but the broth, savoury and coming perilously close to matching Pagolac’s perfection, made up for it somewhat.

Neither Dickson nor I were willing to concede the southside Pagolac’s pho crown, but we do believe that The Golden Bird will provide a tasty and pleasing alternative to pho lovers in the downtown core.



Green Onion Cakes

Golden Bird Beef Noodle Soup

Medium Rare Beef Noodle Soup


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Thursday, February 28, 2008

Kerstin's Chocolates: The Cocoa Room

Kerstin's Chocolates (11812 121 Street) opened its first store, The Cocoa Room, about three weeks ago. I have seen their signature Chocophilia bars at shops around the city, but had never purchased one to try. A random Wednesday seemed like a good time as any to see what all the fuss was about.

From the website, a quote from founder Kerstin Roos about what sets their products apart:

"There are three big differences between our chocolates and the majority of chocolates out there. We use only single-bean aromatic varieties from the top-end plantations in the world. We make our own products by hand for the best quality control and freshness. And we are exploring ways to connect with our local food culture by incorporating local products like organic Evans cherries grown just outside of Edmonton, or locally grown hemp hearts into our recipes."

The Cocoa Room, tucked underneath a residential apartment building, is tiny. Clean white, with shelves neatly organized to show off its wares, the interior reminded me very much of the boutiques in the High Street area. As I walked in, I could hear pounding – not the sound of hammers, but of de-moulding chocolate.

A store clerk immediately came out to greet me, and once I let her know that this was my first visit, she started introducing some of their Chocophilia flavour creations. The website only lists 13 varieties, but as she gave me a sample to try that isn't included in the online catalogue, I do believe the store has more extensive stock. The white chocolate lime was such an unusual combination, but worked, melding the richness of the high cocoa butter content with bites of citrus tang. Chocophilia Hot (with cayanne pepper) snuck up on me, needing a few seconds before releasing its heat in the back of my throat. I also tried Kerstin's Chocolate Caviar - cocoa nibs from Venezuela dipped in 65% dark chocolate then rolled in cocoa powder. Kind of like a cross between a cocoa puff and a coffee bean, I'm not sure they're as addictive as advertised, but I can see them being used as a unique garnish on desserts.

Beyond their house-made bars, they also sell imported, single-origin chocolate bars, drinking chocolate, melting chocolate, and yes, even books about chocolate (I spied Charlie and the Chocolate Factory!). The store will also begin offering monthly chocolate tastings (for just $15) in March, although that sitting is already fully booked.

I ended up with two bars - the Fleur de Sel (49% milk chocolate with sea salt) and the Mocha Bean (65% dark chocolate with crushed coffee beans). Chocophilia is not cheap - at $3.95 for a 43g bar, this isn't your average corner store craving run. But with the undeniable appeal of being an Edmonton owned and operated business, and their admirable ideals for purchasing locally, it was a small price to pay for contributing to a home-grown company.

Back to the chocolate – the clerk said that because all of the chocolate is made in-store, freshness is guaranteed. I could tell this was true just from opening the packets – the aroma was unmistakable. The salt kernels in the Fleur de Sel were detectable, but not as a point of distinction. I much preferred the Mocha Bean – the crunchy additive of fresh Transcend Coffee-roasted beans was delightful, and of course, the tried and true combination of coffee and chocolate was a winner.

It occurred to me that incorporating locally-grown or manufactured products into a dinner party would be a subtle way of introducing friends to what is available in the city. From an Inspired Market Garden salad to organic vegetables from Peas on Earth, to beef from Spring Creek Ranch (Judy Schultz just published a story about the family behind the farm), it would be an interesting exercise to spur discussion about the locavore movement, and to share knowledge about the stories behind products - something that is almost always absent from groceries picked up en masse at the supermarket.

Check out The Cocoa Room for some great chocolate goods, and let me know your favorite flavours!

Kerstin's Chocolates

Chocophilia galore!

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Theatre Network: "Famous Puppet Death Scenes"

Even a day later, I still don’t know what to make of Famous Puppet Death Scenes.

I felt a pang of regret last year when I missed the Calgary’s troop’s performance at the Roxy, having heard many good things about them, so I made sure to note the date of their return engagement in 2008. On Tuesday, we joined a full house to watch re-enactments of the most macabre moments in puppet theatre history.

A fairly standard puppet theatre frame, with a large curtained window flanked by two smaller ones, greeted us on stage. Everything started out well enough, with a rubber puppet resembling a face crafted out of an upside-down chin doing its best to elude a stalking wooden fist intent on destroying it. Scenes featuring this figure doing its best to dodge death (accompanied by some upbeat, trumpet-blaring music) were sprinkled throughout the play, and were always a welcome sight. I couldn’t help but laugh at the way its arms would flop as he did a happy dance.

A host figure (who looked like a green-tinged Albert Einstein) was used as a unifying force of sorts, trying to stitch together the individual scenes by posing thoughtful questions. But with some of the rather comic deaths following such requested introspection, pointed reflection quickly dissolved into laughter. Still, the sequences that were punctuated with humor ended up being my favourites, including the squeaky-voiced German figures that had to choose between two fateful doors, game-show style, or the futuristic, immortal Johnny Depp-lookalike aliens who had no concept of death. Unfortunately, funny was few and far between. The majority of the scenes involved more symbolic, solemn representations of death, such as the role of time in its erosion of life (in the morose but excruciatingly slow The Cruel Sea), the long, telling blink from a single large eye in The Last Whale, or the flight of King Jeff the Magnificent through space. By the end of the play, I was so exhausted from trying to stay awake that any profound message I was meant to gather would have been lost on me.

Content aside, I did appreciate the craftsmanship that must have gone into the puppets themselves. The Old Trout Puppet Workshop demonstrated their expertise with different types of material and a variety of styles, including marionettes and hand puppets. Mack liked the distinct backdrops used to set the individual scenes, which helped the viewer imagine the type of world that particular puppet inhabited (the alley created for The Beast of Muggditch Lane had great lighting too).

While I don’t deny the chance that I simply didn’t understand what the company was trying to get across, I think it is quite possible as well that the premise of the play – funnelling through unrelated, random sequences from multiple sources – may ultimately have reduced the connection that could be fostered between characters and an audience throughout the course of a full-length play. So although death was the common link throughout, Famous Puppet Death Scenes was too plodding and scattered for me to recommend.

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Better with a Discount: Mr. Mike's Steakhouse & Bar

Mack suffers from an affliction I've termed CAD, or Coupon Aversion Disorder. The idea of saving a couple of bucks is usually enough to entice the would-be diner, but with Mack, the opposite effect is true. So count me as shocked when he took me up on a (God forbid) 2-for-1 offer at the newest franchise to shack up on Bourbon Street in West Edmonton Mall - Mr. Mike's Steakhouse & Bar (1647, 8882 170 Street).

Open since June, the only thing I had heard about the restaurant was that a decent, reasonably priced meal could be had there, courtesy of James. A quick once-over of the online menu revealed no surprises - the typical mix of share-plate appetizers, burgers, one-off pastas and stir-fry bowls, and of course, steak. Prices, as we would discover, are less than those found at The Keg.

Mr. Mike's doesn't take reservations, but early on a Tuesday evening, pre-booking wasn't necessary. I was promptly seated in the small, dim lounge near the front of the restaurant, and as I waited for Mack, surveyed the decor. Besides a decorative Native carving of some sort, I couldn't figure out what the slogan, "It's a West Coast Thing!" was supposed to mean. Based on our seating arrangement, on IKEA-esque chairs more suited for a sitting room than a dining area, and a sectional couch along one wall (pity the poor soul who has to eat meat bending over a low table), I figured those on the coast just don't know how to use space wisely and practically. That said, we could have requested a booth in the proper dining room, which featured a rather lovely bar and a high ceiling. But with the onslaught of food we were about to receive, in the end, it didn't matter where we were seated.

Mack arrived shortly after, and I convinced him, as we perused the menu, to come over to the dark side of the great coupon divide. Thus, we both ordered steaks: he the 9oz. New York, supersized into a Classic Combo ($26.99) which included a Caesar salad, sauteed mushrooms, and starch in the form of fries, and I the 6oz Filet Mignon, served with a side of roasted garlic red-skin mashed potatoes ($25.99). We also requested a plate of Calamari ($8.99) to start.

Our server was nice, albeit perhaps not genuinely so. I'm almost certain she is very good at her job, but on that night, she had a shadow of a trainee, which can throw off the best of us. Thus, she ended up forgetting about our appetizer order, and made it up to us by offering the calamari on the house. As with most things fried, I enjoyed the crunchy little morsels, but Mack claimed calamari supremacy still belonged to Earls. Mack's salad was a meal in and of itself; he even resorted to packing up the last half for (yes) lunch the next day.

The steaks arrived in no time. I thought Mack's ridged plate would make it difficult for him to cut through the meat, but he didn't seem to have any trouble with it. We had both asked for medium preparation, and it was perfectly done for both of us; my filet mignon was incredibly juicy and tender, and the peppercorn cream sauce provided some bite and high caloric flavour. The side of onion rings, tasting very similar to those at A & W, were a nice treat as a less common accompaniment.

With our coupon (and our server's mistake), we ended up with a bill totalling only $33 before tax and tip. The food was great though, and even at regular price, I would have heartily enjoyed the meal. Still, life's better with a discount, so hopefully this tale will help others with CAD realize that exercising frugality really isn't so bad.

Caught in my food blogging routine


Caesar Salad

New York Classic Combo

Filet Mignon with Garlic Roasted Potatoes and Onion Rings

Mack enjoying the calamari

My (almost) empty plate

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Monday, February 25, 2008

Food Notes

  • Edmonton Dining Week runs March 7-16. A list of participating restaurants is up, but no menus as of yet. I think I'd like to try Ric's Grill this year.
  • Do you have a renegade child chef on your hands? It seems Food Network is attracting its own very devoted sect of young fans.
  • The headlines incorporating the word "Bam!" have been overdone, so I'll just say: Martha Stewart Omnimedia acquired some of Emeril Lagasse's rights this week.
  • Reality bites: a Chowhound piece about second careers in food that failed. I like Jacquilynne's comment: "I've added this to my favorites so I can come back to it and read it every time the idea that I could totally open a cafe crosses my mind. "
  • How many more Italian chefs needs their own line of EVOO? Giada does, apparently (and seasoning salts too!).
  • How would you like some history with that tea? Hotel Macdonald's Royal Tea & Tour would make a day out with your Mum.
  • My beloved Blue Plate Diner has changed their menu. This wouldn't be so bad, except they forever altered my meatloaf! I tried the "new" version the week before, and while I may warm to it eventually, it just wasn't the same.
  • In Take-Out Adventures: Part 4, my colleague agreed to pick up lunch for a few people from Hoang Long (10715 98 Street) last week. Elma swears by their lunch vermicelli bowls, so I probably should have taken her cue, but when I saw Pad Thai on the menu, I knew I had to give it a try. While the quantity of tofu included was generous, overall, my box of soggy noodles was definitely not worth the $12.95 + tax + tip that I had to pay.

Pad Thai from Hoang Long


Sunday, February 24, 2008

Defying Expectations: Wildflower Grill

A fair food blogger reveals biases. So for the sake of full disclosure: I entered Wildflower Grill (10001 107 Street) hell bent on hating it.

My friends and I used to go to Lazia (10200 102 Avenue), the original of the Lazia Group's holdings, all the time while we were in high school. We loved the swanky decor (their glass-blown centrepiece sculpture was like nothing we had ever seen before), the generous portions, and the convenient City Centre Mall location. But our affections were eventually depleted by rising prices, inconsistent food quality, and poor service. I haven't eaten there in years.

When I had heard that the Inn on 7th was being renovated by the people behind the Varscona and Meterra Hotels on Whyte, I was excited, and even more so when I heard they were looking for a tenant to fill their designated restaurant space. However, when it was released that the Lazia Group was the winner of said space, I was only cautiously optimistic that their choice was the right one. Their many construction delays (a likely by-product of the oft-cited "Alberta boom") that pushed their opening back from Fall 2007 to February 2008 just helped maintain my scepticism about the Wildflower. After my visit last night, however, I am ready to take most of my criticisms back.

Having been open for just three weeks, to much less fanfare than expected in the local media in part due to the lack of a full-time Bistro writer at the Journal, the Wildflower Grill is situated on the ground floor of The Matrix Hotel. My first impressions weren't wholly positive: the plastic "NOW OPEN!" sign above the door, while understandable given their innumerable opening delays, seemed tacky for a restaurant of this supposed calibre. Upon entry, I immediately noticed the poor couple seated at one of the tables facing the entryway - perhaps they didn't have a reservation, but as the restaurant was never at capacity during my stay, I didn't see why such an unfortunate placement had been given to them.

I was greeted by a friendly hostess who opened with what became a standard Wildflower staff line: "Welcome to the Wildflower." Simple and oh so effective, this was one of the many small details that the restaurant nailed in their attempt to create an atmosphere where dining is a form of theatre. Since returning from New York, this was also the first time I didn't mind the idea of checking my coat.

The hostess led me to a table near the kitchen, which I at first balked at, given the number of empty booths away from what could have been a disruptive sightline. But I later relished the opportunity to observe the kitchen staff. The owner was literally on top of the line cooks the entire night, pacing around the area to ensure dishes were delivered efficiently and that the servers were taking care of their guests. Because of this, I couldn't blame the staff for seeming to be slightly on edge, so eager (and needing) to please they were.

As my "Welcome to the Wildflower" server Adam went to retrieve a glass of tap (not sparkling, or bottled still) water for me, I surveyed the decor. I nearly missed the beautiful wine cases on my way in, impressive but not pompously so. Everything was chic and simple: beaded curtains; dark carpeted floor; white booths (which they may come to regret after a year of wear); flower portraits; and lastly, a genuine, stemless orchid in a small hand-blown glass bowl on each table - management were really pulling out all the stops.

Shermie joined me soon after, and we took our time to peruse the page-long menu. I had warned her that the entrees were expensive, with plates ranging from the $26 butternut squash ravioli to the $49 beef tenderloin & lobster pairing. But to be fair, the prices are on par with other boutique hotels in the city, such as Madison's Grill at the Union Bank Inn. Though the Wildflower claims to offer "New Canadian Cuisine", their entrees don't appear to demonstrate a theme of any kind - a token pasta dish complemented by a few requisite beef and game plates "Canadian" does not make.

Shermie opted for the Mesquite Grilled Alberta 'Prime' Striploin ($48), while I chose the most foodie-centric dish on the menu: Chef Yoshi's Bouillabaisse. Knowing that the chef was Japanese, I thought such an entree, prepared with Asian fixings, would allow me to best judge the quality of the restaurant's offerings. While I intended to hone in on the fish, as shellfish really isn't my cup of tea, I was excited as well about trying soba noodles, an ingredient I recently read about in Ruth Reichl's Garlic and Sapphires.

After our orders were taken, Adam brought us amuses bouche. Count me shocked - I thought I had eaten in some fairly "fancy" restaurants in Edmonton, but none before Wildflower had ever served this pre-course. I wish I had written down the name of the amuse bouche, but all I can remember is the nice punch of flavour provided by the aged gouda.

Next, we were treated to a wonderful bread service, which at the Wildflower involved a lovely made-to-order brioche. Tasting just like the egg bread loaves available at T & T Supermarket, the brioche was delivered in the most clever serving vessel since frittatas in mini cast iron skillets - an oversized measuring cup. Two butters were provided, dressed with house-grown micro-greens, but really, the bread was sweet and fresh enough to be happily consumed sans adornment.

Everything was timed perfectly, as our entrees were made available shortly after our bread plates had been cleared and appropriate cutlery provided to us. My dish was artfully constructed, arranged as symmetrically as possible, and served with soy sauce, ginger, and wasabi mayo accompaniments. As expected, the collection of fruits de mer didn't really appeal to me, though I did my best to finish the scallops and mussels in respect of the chef. The fish pieces were a mixed bag - the teriyaki halibut was the best of the trio - sweet and tangy, and cooked to a buttery soft texture, it put the rather bland sea bass and surprisingly tough salmon to shame. It took me a while to find a frame of reference for the bonito broth (a type of fish stock), but it eventually occurred to me that it tasted like a saltier miso soup - a lovely broth that seems to warm one from the inside. Shermie enjoyed her steak (as well as the quiche side), but said that it wasn't as good as the Petite Filet at Ruth's Chris.

The surprise of the evening came when Chef Yoshi actually came out of the kitchen to personally visit with every table! Some may view this as unnecessary pandering, but as someone with a keen interest in food, this was too cool. Of course, when he asked if we had any questions, all I could conjure up was something I immediately wished I could take back - I asked for help identifying the bamboo in my dish. Of course, given that I haven't had bamboo shoots in recent memory, I can't be too embarrassed.

We elected to spring for a "sweet ending" to our meal, and that was the best decision we made all night, both opting for the Chocolate Tasting. While what we received was slightly different than the menu advertised, neither of us would have complained as dessert was an absolute masterpiece. The presentation of our dish was like those found in larger metropolitan centres (or Iron Chef America), not in Edmonton, I thought. Although there were a multitude of elements incorporated, I appreciated the flavour sophistication they tried to reach, and if anything else, the variety that $12 bought us. The mango compote & sorbet was deliciously refreshing and the pineapple foam was interestingly paired with the concentrated dense chocolate 'brownie', but our favorite was undoubtedly the milk chocolate parfait, velvety smooth and comparable to traditional gelato.

The Wildflower Grill begs for another visit in about six months, when the new car smell has worn off. Still, a restaurant like this can only heighten the bar for others like it, and I really do hope that the Lazia Group doesn't let it fall away with neglect like its other properties.



Amuse Bouche


Mesquite Grilled Alberta 'Prime' Striploin

Chef Yoshi's Bouillabaisse

Chocolate Tasting

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Friday, February 22, 2008

Quotable People: Installment Ten

The quotes in my 2008 page-a-day calendar are decidedly more sentimental that the fun, off-the-cuff ones from spirited women in my 2007 version. Still, I like having them here on my blog to kick around.

  • "And now whatever way our stories end, I know you have re-written mine by being my friend…" – Elphaba in Wicked (not from the calendar, but I heart the song this line comes from)

  • "A loyal friend laughs at your jokes when they're not so good, and sympathizes with your problems when they're not so bad." – Arnold H. Glasgow

  • "The most beautiful discovery two friends make is that they can grow separately without growing apart." – Elizabeth Foley

  • "Constant use will not wear ragged the fabric of friendship." – Dorothy Parker

  • "When friends ask, there is no tomorrow." - proverb

  • "The language of friendship is not words, but meanings." – Henry David Thoreau


Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Cooking Chronicles: Cheat's Apple Tarts

I still had a half a package of puff pastry left over from Tuesday, so decided to give Donna Hay's Instant Cook recipe for Cheat's Apple Tarts a go.

Like the Strawberry-Brie Bites, this was a very quick assemble-and-bake recipe, great for those who are time-pressed to create a dessert. Learning from my Rustic Apple Tart lesson, I used sweeter gala apples this time around, and it did create a less sour, juicier filling. The melted butter, brushed over the puff pastry before lining the muffin tins, provided additional flavour as well. And while I didn't have any on hand, vanilla bean ice cream would have rounded out the tart nicely.

This is another recipe I will definitely keep close in the event of a dessert emergency!

Cheat's Apple Tarts

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Cooking Chronicles: Strawberry-Brie Bites

The original plan that Mack and I had for Jane's party was to bring two dishes inspired by the letter "B". But by the time I re-read Giada's recipe for Classic Italian Lasagne on Sunday afternoon, I realized there wasn't enough time to thaw two packages of frozen spinach I didn't yet have, so we reverted to my tried and true Stuffed Shells with Arrabbiata Sauce instead. As for our second hypothetical contribution, I forgot entirely about needing to thaw the package of puff pastry we purchased two days before, and so my experimentation with Cranberry-Brie Bites was temporarily set aside.

Of course, the triangle of brie was still sitting in my fridge, waiting to be used before its expiration date this week, so remembering this time to leave the Tenderflake package in the fridge the night prior, I set out to put together this quick hors d'oeuvre (I will never learn how that word is spelled).

In all honesty, it took me about ten minutes total to grase the pans, roll out the dough, cut the squares, place small pieces of brie into the cups and a dollop of strawberry jam (Mack and I had scoured the shelves at both Sobeys and Superstore for cranberry sauce to no avail) on top. I did cut the rind off of the brie first, as I don't care for the taste, and I think it contributed to the overall creaminess of the filling. I also reduced the jam content down to just over a teaspoon, and I thought the balance between the crispy, savoury pastry dough and the hint of sweetness from the jam was just perfect.

This is a versatile last-minute party appetizer - the bites can be pre-assembled and chilled, then baked just before guests arrive to be served warm.

Strawberry-Brie Bites

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Ruth Reichl's "Garlic and Sapphires"

There are many types of celebrities in the food world, including chefs, restaurateurs, and network hosts. Another group, and one that is almost counterintuitive to include among these revered connoisseurs are the critics who write about food.

One of the most well known critics in the United States is Ruth Reichl. Currently the Editor-in-Chief of Gourmet, previously the restaurant critic at the New York Times, and before that, the food editor at the Los Angeles Times, she has garnered a reputation of "democratizing" expensive eats and even expressing guilt about her indulgence in the face of those who can't afford food at all.

I remember seeing her name here and there, especially on Ganda's blog, but I didn't really know that she had written anything other than brief columns until I saw her most recent memoir, titled Garlic and Sapphires, in Barnes and Noble in New York. I bought a copy upon my return to Edmonton, and actually managed to finish the book (my idiosyncrasy as of late is an inability to complete books I begin...shame).

A narrative about her stint at the NY Times, it is a journey through the many disguises she dons in attempts to hide her true identity from restaurants seeking to woo her with the hopes of striking a good review. In the process, she uncovers personalities within that she didn't know she had.

That arc, in my opinion, is enjoyable, but is also the weakest link of the book. It's easiest to relate to Reichl when she writes as the fun-loving, down-to-earth woman who simply enjoys good food. But it is also a bit contrived, the reviews and dining experiences carefully chosen to demonstrate the gradual development and learning Reichl went through over her six years at the paper.

That said, I have much to learn from Reichl - beyond wishing for her impeccable palette and appreciation for the expansive edible spectrum New York has to offer, I would imagine many also strive to capture the essence of food with words the way she does. Those who know my tastes know that I do not eat sushi, but after savouring Reichl's descriptions of the authentic Japanese eatery Kurumazushi, with fresh fish sliced so thin it literally melts on your tongue, even I would consider changing my stance on raw seafood.

Some things I could have learned elsewhere, but was easier within the context of Garlic and Sapphires:

  • Daniel Boulud and Jacques Torres both worked at Le Cirque;
  • Chilean sea bass is also known as Patagonian toothfish; and
  • before handing down a verdict, Reichl would dine at a location at least three times, if not more. This allows a restaurant to have a 'bad night', especially when a negative review from the Times can really tip the fortunes of a place, but boy, what a luxury (more than multiple visits by one person, I favour one visit by many people, as can be found in Frank Bruni's recent review of the Second Avenue Deli).

Even amongst anecdotes of four-star pampering, evenings amongst the elite crowd, and a position that saw Reichl accepting phone calls from Hollywood celebrities to ask for restaurant recommendations, I found myself most drawn to her quiet moments with her too-precocious pre-school son Nicky. Ever-supportive of his mother's wild guises, and always eager to lend a helping hand in the kitchen, his presence ground the story - and her life - as more than just a byline.

At the end of it, Reichl and I both on the same page on the absolute non-negotiable aspect that eating out is an experience, and any restaurant not catering to this sort of theatre and hyper reality doesn't understand its diners. In the next few months, I would like to try out some of the recipes included (which she deliberately substituted in place of photos), and (fingers crossed) finish reading her second memoir, Comfort Me With Apples.

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Culinary Q & A with Elma

Occupation: Registered Social Worker

What did you eat today?

6” Chicken teriyaki sub from subway, cereal, fruit, and coffee, Chicken fingers.

What do you never eat?

Tofu and sushi

What is your personal specialty?

I make a awesome meatloaf.

What is your favorite kitchen item?

I don’t know, I try not to go in the kitchen very much.

World ends tomorrow. Describe your last meal.

My last meal would be pizza, white wine and a big chocolate cake. (I am simple)

Where do you eat out most frequently?

Wendy’s and Joey tomato (love both places)

What's the best place to eat in Edmonton?

Not sure, I do like the Keg but not sure if it is the best place to eat.

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

I would go to New York and have a slice of pizza.

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Food Notes

  • Sure there’s the matter of service, ambiance, and of course, the food to consider, but who knew some critics also consider the noise level of a restaurant? Apparently, it is becoming a rapidly increasing issue with diners (Vancouver's Salt Tasting Room, featured on a recent episode of Giada's Weekend Getaways, rated off the the noise charts).
  • The Clover individual-cup coffee brewing machine is taking the world by storm. Starbucks is testing it in Seattle and Boston, selling the French-press brewed coffees for $2.25-2.50.
  • As Starbucks phases out their hot food menu, Second Cup has decided to expand theirs.
  • I am not alone: I found a group of Chowhounders who aren't shy about their dislike of Earls and Joey's, amongst other chains. Long live dissent!
  • Also scooped from Chowhound: The Cocoa Room (10139 112 Street) is now open downtown, a retail location dedicated to the Chocophilia line of goods.
  • As reported in the Edmonton Journal, the purveyors of Maurya Palace will be opening up a "high end" Indian restaurant on Whyte Avenue and 105th Street in about six weeks called Original India.
  • Philanthropic food photography: New York's City Harvest is the beneficiary of an auction selling pictures of mouth-watering dishes prepared by well-known chefs. Cool idea.
  • There's a great piece by Ed Levine over at Serious Eats which addresses the question: does "authentic" ethnic food trump delicious?
  • Lastly, I joined my first group on Flickr - pictures of Ina Garten's recipes.


Saturday, February 16, 2008

Catalyst Theatre: "Frankenstein"

Frankenstein is frightfully good.

Now that I've gotten that out of my system - Frakenstein was like nothing I've ever seen before. Theatrical in the purest sense of the word (if I can claim such a definition exists), the production demonstrates a remarkable congruence of the script, music, lighting, and design - no one element is out of place or is anything except seamless within the musical as a whole. I am almost certain this is due to the very close collaborative relationship between writer/director/composer Jonathan Christenson and production designer Bretta Gerecke. While I can't speak to what the typical process is, I gather that it is an apt luxury for the development of a show's design to take place alongside alterations to the script.

I do believe I read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein early on in my university years, but to tell you the truth, I can't remember much of the story. I thought this would be a disadvantage coming into this production, but was I ever wrong. The tragic tale of Victor and his fall from grace was not only accessible, but perhaps even more rich and powerful with Christenson's interpretation supported by Gerecke's design. The text was re-written in ABCB rhyming form, allowing for a less jarring transition to the musical segueways. This version of Frankenstein was also not without some black humor - there were more than a few moments where the audience's hesitation at whether laughing out loud was acceptable or not was palpable (the "going to Hell in a handbasket" number was one of these instances). My only nitpick with the words chosen was a slight overuse of the term "fate" - I think Victor's story is more meaningful with less emphasis on destiny and more on the context of his life that led to the unfortunate decisions he made. Sure, "fate" allows for many rhyming options, but it is the monosyllabic equivalent of an easy way out.

The cast was fantastic - I was impressed with Nick Green's agility as Henry, Tracy Penner's ethereal presence as Lucy, and Andrew Kushnir's consistent contortion of his hands, physically manifesting Victor's twisted internal emotions. George Szilagyi as the Creature, however, deserves to be singled out - not only was he able to sympathetically convey the heartbreaking discovery of his monstrous appearance with a near full-face mask on, but even in his moments of unforgiving revenge, there lay a resonating note of injustice and misunderstanding.

As for the design - I will admit to needing to rely on the program for confirmation that Gerecke used paper to form the backbone of the costumes. I don't feel too bad, however, as the texture, structures, and appearance she was able to achieve with paper was unique to the point of being magical. The fact that all characters were dressed in white neutralized each of them, allowing the audience to focus more closely on facial expressions and words spoken. Moreover, I am not sure if this was deliberate, but I loved the effect of seeing bits of white material being left behind on the stage as the actors moved about - it formed a literal representation of the impression left by individuals.

Frakenstein is the best candidate I have ever seen to offer a continuous production, Broadway-style, here in Edmonton. It must be a physically and emotionally taxing run for the actors, even for the three weeks in this remount, but I do believe it is too good for locals and tourists alike to miss. It thus goes without saying that Christenson and Gerecke's next collaboration, Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Improbable Death of Edgar Allan Poe (scheduled for early 2009), will debut with expectations never before seen in the city's theatre community.

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Bistro Praha's Younger, Hipper Cousin: Accent European Lounge

Spurned by another Entertainment Book coupon offer, May and I met up at the easily-missed Accent European Lounge (8223 104 Street) on Whyte Avenue for a pre-show dinner. You may remember the previous occupant of the space - Milan's - but with a new owner (and the same chef), Accent was born in March 2007.

When I arrived just after 5:30pm on Saturday, I found the restaurant empty, save for one group in the corner. Business was steady over the course of our meal, however, and the room was nearly full by the time we left two hours later.

Accent is charming and cozy, and can be understood best as Bistro Praha's younger, hipper cousin. Dim, but with great foresight in lighting placement, the room wasn't dark, taking full advantage of wall sconces and pendant lamps. Tabletop candles provided some of the requisite ambiance, and played well against the room's dark wood. I also loved the copper inlay on the tables - they added both a nonchalant touch of class and a not-oft seen method of table dressing. I did think, however, that the two television sets (or at least, the one not above the bar) were out of place. Judging from that evening, I don't believe those who choose to dine at Accent would be using the space to follow game contests.

We were tended to by the lone waitress, a bubbly personality with a perfectly welcoming presence in the restaurant. She gave us ample time to peruse the menu, and didn't flinch when I mentioned the fact that I had a coupon. The menu was actually a little less "European" than I expected, with the only transferable dishes between its older, more stalwart Bistro Praha relative being the Wiener Schnitzel and Baked Goulash. May and I ended up with the decidedly more commonplace Filet Mignon ($26) and Baked Salmon ($21), respectively.

Our wait for entrees was lengthy, given that most in the room hadn't yet ordered. But we were satiated when we received our plates, especially with the generous servings of steamed vegetables provided. Filets of salmon are difficult to mess up, and aren't ever really spectacular, as it was in this case. The pan-fried potatoes were a nice treat though.

Less pretentious and more casual than Flavours, but with a less interesting menu than Packrat Louie, I don't think I will make many frequent returns to Accent. But if you're looking for a bit of charm on Whyte that can't be found at a bar, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Accent.


Filet Mignon

Baked Salmon

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Friday, February 15, 2008

The End of "Groundhog Day": Taco Del Mar

Like being trapped in a scene from Groundhog Day, Mack and I have been having the same start-stop conversation about a new Mexican chain that broke ground in Alberta about a year ago. It would go something like this:

[driving past a Taco Del Mar]

Sharon: Oh, look that's the new taco place. They opened five locations in Edmonton just recently.
Mack: Yes, I know. We've had this conversation. I blogged about it over a year ago.
Sharon: Really?!
Mack: Yes, really. This is the third time we've had this conversation.

So we figured before Mack killed me to stop the echoing, we thought it would be best to give Taco Del Mar a try.

On Friday night, we headed to the location at 17th Street and 38th Avenue. There was only one other table occupied upon entry, though a trickle of people came through while we sat eating our meal.

Exterior (I just had to laugh at the electric signs that read, "Rippin Tacos" and "Mondo Burritos")

The decor was cheesy, but in a fun way, with posters referencing the "of the sea" portion of the name, such as "No stopping: whale watching is not an emergency. Keep going". The tiki hut with bar stools was just too novel to pass up.

Mack in the tiki hut

At the counter, we were prompted by the bright and bold menu to order a customizable dish. I had to deliberate for a while, but I decided to sample the Mondo Burrito ($6.99). My tortilla was filled with rice, pico de gallo (a mixture of onions and tomatoes), shredded marble cheese, and my choice of beans (I chose kidney beans), meat (chicken), and hot or medium sauce. Folded then wrapped in foil, there was a sign that advised unwrapping the package as it was being consumed, to prevent it from falling apart in one's lap. I took their advice, and ripped strips of foil away as I ate. Mack can attest that it took me an extraordinary amount of time to get through my food, exacerbated by my tendency to take very small bites, an ultimate disservice to the burrito.


Mondo Burrito

Mack decided to order the quesadilla ($6.99). Containing picco de gallo, shredded cheese, and chicken, it was less filling than my order, but delicious in its simplicity. He was disappointed, however, at the lack of what he termed "sea meat" (Alaskan fish was the only seafood option available).


Would we return? We weren't sure, as the prices were probably double what we'd pay at a Taco Bell for a combo meal. While the customizable nature of the food at Taco Del Mar explains the relative expense, we wouldn't be able to fiscally justify continuous visits for a meal that just wasn't that special.

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Film: "Definitely, Maybe"

After seeing the headline, “A Valentine for New York” in the Globe and Mail about the movie Definitely, Maybe, I knew I had to see it.

Ryan Reynolds is William Hayes, a devoted father who explains to his daughter Maya (played by the perpetually charming Abigail Breslin) how he met her mother. The foundation of their relationship provides some needed stability in the movie, though some would say Breslin’s character is simply a different incarnation of the leading man’s usual wisecracking sidekick friend. Anyway, Will recounts the different relationships he had as a young man, literally charting his would-be wives and the associated break-ups that ensued.

Definitely, Maybe is principally a movie about bad timing, and thus the flashback structure is an effective vehicle to carry the audience through the years (though it is hard to believe that baby-faced Reyonlds is old enough to have an eight-year old child). The women are a force to be reckoned with in their own right, every one of them easily holding their own. Elizabeth Banks as the comfortable college sweetheart, Rachel Weisz as the intense, sensual journalist, and Isla Fisher as the fun-loving free spirit shine in their respective sequences, and it is easy to see why Will falls for each of them. Reyonlds, who I remember only as an overgrown frat boy in Van Wilder, proves that he is capable of carrying the lead role in an emotionally-charged film (not to mention having eyes that you just want to fall into...).

The one notable weakness of the movie is not the fact that Will is in the middle of a divorce with Maya’s mother, but the fact that their life together is not shown. And beyond the audience’s own extrapolations of why it didn’t work (in order to allow for the ending), it is a narrative hole that should have been filled.

As for the inspiration provided by New York itself, besides the shock of seeing the Twin Towers in an early scene, wasn’t as prominent a backdrop as I was expecting. Moreover, the New York in the movie is spared from the winter season all together, it seems. Because of this, I thought it would have been a more appropriate spring release, though it is coincidental that Will’s involvement in politics (starting with his work in Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign) chimes now with Hillary’s current run for Democratic nominee.

As a whole I found this movie more satisfying as a romantic comedy than 27 Dresses – so if you’re looking for something sweet, go see Definitely, Maybe!


Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Cooking Chronicles: Neopolitan Cupcakes

I am a perfectionist when it comes to the creation of my dishes, especially with regards to its ultimate appearance – food does, after all, begin with a strong visual connection. In my short time of culinary experimentation, I haven’t yet been defeated by a recipe. I came close to my first yesterday.

For a nice Valentine’s Day treat for my coworkers, I was debating between red velvet cupcakes and a Neopolitan version. I ended up deciding upon the latter, if not only because of the more unusual strawberry-scented icing.

I find that the time estimates given on recipes are a misnomer, or perhaps I am just too slow. I also think the two batters called for threw me for a loop; I couldn’t for the life of me remember if I had added enough flour to the chocolate batch. Thankfully, the cakes themselves turned out okay, and actually, the flavour of the chocolate half was lighter, sweeter, and tastier than Ina’s recipe (I think it has to do with the milk).

As for the icing…it unfortunately fit my pattern of not being able to make an “untested” (read: non-celebrity chef/recognized cookbook affiliated) recipe work for me. It was a complicated one, starting with the heating of four egg whites with sugar (leading to the first catastrophe– note to self: do not use Dollarama glass bowls as a double boiler), then intense whipping with the electric mixer. I think I underbeat the mixture at this stage, halting just before the formation of stiff peaks, and added the butter too quickly. As well, though I do have access to a KitchenAid mixer, I didn’t want to take on the necessary clean up afterwards, so I stuck with the standard egg beaters instead of using the recommended paddle attachment. This was my second error – the mixture, upon addition of the jam, ended up with the consistency of wet whipping cream, and tasted like it too. All that work for what appears to be artificially-flavoured whipping cream. Yes, it was easier to get into the piping bag because it was moist, but squeezed through a star tip, enough liquid was coming through that the “icing” was literally dripping down the sides of the cupcake.

I chose the most presentable cupcakes for my colleagues, topped it off with a mini conversation heart, and gave one each to them this morning. They did enjoy them, and at the end of the day, that’s all that matters.

Happy Valentine's Day, everyone! (And for you romantics out there, you're not alone in your belief of love at first sight.)

Neopolitan Cupcakes

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Culinary Q & A with Andrew

Occupation: Engineer by day, Medic by night.

What did you eat today?

So far? An orange, it's 7:34AM, but on the menu today: rice with BBQ ribs and gai lan veggies. For dinner: probably the same.

What do you never eat?

I actually eat everything, even though I hate cilantro. But I guess I don't get a chance to eat salads a lot.

What is your personal specialty?

The only time I've ever cooked (relatively well) was making vegetable tempura, teriyaki chicken, and sesame oil bean sprouts.

What is your favorite kitchen item?

Spatula, they remind me of my days spent at McDonald's.

World ends tomorrow. Describe your last meal.

Appetizer: Asparagus lightly oiled and sprinkled with sea salt, laid on top of two of those Joey Tomato's mashed potato spring rolls.Dinner: Rainbow Roll maki, Yellowtail sashimi, and a Teriyaki Chicken/Habachi Shrimp bento box.Dessert: A moist and delicious cake from La Favourite.

Where do you eat out most frequently?

For lunch: Tokyo Express
For dinner: Kyoto, I'm a culinary Japanophile.

What's the best place to eat in Edmonton?

Kyoto for Japanese, Cheesecake Cafe for everything else.

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

Brunei, eating satay sticks!!

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Entertainment Notes

  • The writer's strike is over! Check out this list to see when your favorites will (tentatively) return. Unfortunately, the new season of 24 has been pushed back until January of next year, but a few more House episodes will be finished before the close of spring.
  • Does anyone remember the time when the Edmonton Public Library was in the business of lending toys? Well, they no longer have such an inventory, but a company named Baby Plays has taken this idea and is making profit off the renting of toys. Great idea for grandparents or those who only care for young children for a short time.
  • The controversial Body Works exhibition is coming to Edmonton's Telus World of Science in June.
  • Upcoming events in February: the Silver Skate Festival at Hawrelak Park, free activities at Churchill Square on Family Day (why they continue to think Movies on the Square is a good idea while there is still snow on the ground is beyond me), and what is sure to be some great theatre, including the student-produced New Works Festival at the University of Alberta - up to 4 shows for $5, and Famous Puppet Death Scenes at the Roxy Theatre.
  • Speaking of theatre, Jeff Haslam's biography in the program of H.M.S. Pinafore says that two Teatro la Quindicina productions are in the works for the summer of this year. I can only hope!


Sunday, February 10, 2008

Food Notes

  • Think twice before dipping: an article in the Journal of Food Safety warns about the amount of bacteria that may be present in the communal dip bowl. The best quote from the article is from Professor Dawson, who proposed the study, "'...before you have some dip at a party, look around and ask yourself, would I be willing to kiss everyone here? Because you don’t know who might be double dipping, and those who do are sharing their saliva with you.'"
  • From a very cute blog called Cupcakes Take the Cake: Chinese New Year cupcakes (with what looks like gold leaf!), Super Mario-themed cupcakes (the mushroom is too clever), and a very elegant Neopolitan cupcake (this recipe is definitely a keeper).
  • Rob Feenie is no longer unemployed: as reported in the Globe & Mail, he will be the "food concept architect" for the Vancouver-based Cactus Club Cafe chain of restaurants. I can't help but think he is biding his time until opening up another restaurant of his own, even though Feenie claims this isn't a "step down", so to speak.
  • Speaking of Vancouver, a recent episode of Giada's Weekend Getaways saw the host touring the city's sites. She avoids the Robson area altogether, opting to visit spots in the more locally-trendy neighbourhoods, including Yaletown, Gastown, and Granville Island. While her visit to Lumiere was friendly, the waiter serving her was a tad too distant, and while out at Vij's, she and her friend were actually served by Vikram Vij himself (sure, they don't cater to celebrities...). Salt Tasting Room, a wine bar, looked pretty cool, and would be a place I would consider visiting.
  • Had questions about favorite foods of the U.S. Presidential candidates? Wonder no more. (The Associated Press article is also a good read - Giuliani's hidden talent made me laugh.)

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Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Robbins Pops Big Band Celebration

On Saturday night, Dickson and I headed to the Winspear Centre for an Edmonton Symphony Orchestra concert, the latest instalment of the Robbins Pops series: Big Band Celebration.

Our tickets were purchased before I knew about the Pulse8 Club, so instead of sitting in the more agreeable terrace or first balcony, we were in the gallery. I didn't really have any complaints about the distance, but the Winspear management might want to look at the safety issues of those trying to navigate to their seats in the first row of the gallery - the narrow space between the chairs combined with the low railing is a safety hazard.

The view from the gallery

I just started going to the Symphony in September, so I don't have that many concerts to compare with, but in my limited experience with the ESO, this has been my favorite so far. Big Band jazz especially puts a smile on the listener's face, so while the spirited introductions from Conductor Erich Kunzel about the history of the era and the songs were lost on me, I still immensely enjoyed the music. "In the Mood" and the concert-ending "Sing, Sing, Sing" were my favorites.

This performance was extra-special because of the non-ESO performers. Steve Bailey and Nathalie Gomes, Lindy Hop Champions in their own right, danced through some of the numbers. They made it look easy, effortless, and incredibly fluid through some very difficult lifts and throws, and made the audience gasp on more than one occasion. Singer Jefferey Berger, on the other hand, I could have done without. His weak voice was exposed on "New York, New York" in particular, though he did do better with the slower "My Way". Yes, Berger is only 21 and still a student, but I can't help but think that Kunzel could have picked someone better.

On a related note, the ESO is looking for bloggers interested in live blogging during an upcoming concert. More information here.

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Among Friends, but Not Good Food: Boston Pizza

In high school, Boston Pizza used to be at the top of our restaurant repetoire. I suppose it still is a frequent fallback choice for large group gatherings, but not as often as in the past. While undoubtedly comfortable and low key, I've found the food at BPs unforgivably inconsistent, so I deign to eat there unless absolutely necessary.

Dickson and I found ourselves there for his friend's birthday dinner, and needing to quiet our hungry stomachs before a night at the symphony, we ordered a new menu item to share - Boston's Poutine ($6.25).

It was thankfully quick, but nothing exceptional. For that price, I could have ordered nearly two of Route 99's generous servings of poutine.

Boston's Poutine

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Saturday, February 09, 2008

Film: "Helvetica"

"A movie about a font? Okay."

I knew that Mack had wanted to see Helvetica for quite some time, but the above is what I was thinking when he asked if I had wanted to come. But after reading the description of the film, I found out that it had more to it than that. From the website:

"Helvetica is a feature-length independent film about typography, graphic design and global visual culture. It looks at the proliferation of one typeface (which is celebrating its 50th birthday this year) as part of a larger conversation about the way type affects our lives."

Friday night's showing at Metro Cinema included a pre-screening party hosted by the Alberta North Chapter of the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada, which meant the majority of those attending were in some way connected to the profession itself. While we didn't feel out of place, when the audience laughed in unison or recognized a familiar face in the movie, we of course didn't.

The movie in itself was interesting, really exposing to me the pervasiveness of Helvetica everywhere (I was waiting with bated breath for Crate & Barrel's logo to show up on screen). By the end of it, every metaphor you could think of to possibly describe how design permeates our lives (e.g. it is the air we breathe) was used. Helvetica as a whole, however, was perhaps too focused on the industry perspective. Mack for one wanted more feedback from those not intimately connected with design. That said, the filmmaker's strength was choosing to put very passionate people in front of the camera, including the very amusing Erik Spiekermann and Massimo Vignelli, who were both unintentionally funny.

As documentaries go, Helvetica isn't bad. It will just have more meaning for you if you have an interest or work in design.


A Better Lunchtime Bistro: Allegro Italian Kitchen

Inspired by a true 2-for-1 coupon offer, Mack and I met up at Allegro Italian Kitchen (10011 109 Street) for dinner on Friday night.

I have been to Allegro only once in the past, lured there by the promise of a live piano player on Saturday evenings. It was my fault for ordering what I did, but the chef used an amount of orange zest only reconcilable for those with scurvy.

Walking in just before 5:30pm, there was only one other table occupied. The efficient hostess sat us near the kitchen, which I didn't mind for the relative warmth it provided (and the distance away from the door - it was freezing outside). As I surveyed the dining room - with a piano situated in the corner and a dessert case and bar along one wall - it occurred to me that Allegro was more of a bistro than anything else. Sure, the dim lights and tabletop candles provided some ambiance, but with awkward metal furniture and an open space that couldn't have been filled with more seats, Allegro fit the archetype of a restaurant more suited for the jostling lunch crowd than a quiet dinner.

I completely forgot to snap a picture of the menu, and thus, the food details will be few and far between in this review. The name of Mack's pasta order has been lost on me, while I ordered the veal-filled cannelloni. To avoid any possible rudeness with the bill later on, I mentioned up front to our server that we intended on using the Entertainment Book offer. She acknowledged this, and remained friendly throughout the evening.

Our entrees arrived very promptly, and I don't think our portion sizes suffered at all from the mention of a coupon. My cannelloni was drenched in a lovely, rich cream sauce, peppered with mushrooms just slightly cooked (the best way to eat them, in my opinion).

I have no real complaints about this experience at Allegro - great service and good food. But as a whole, I do think it is more conducive for daytime meals; the price and lack of real ambiance just don't mix.


Mack's pasta


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Better than your Average Sub: Saigon Givral

Lunch options around my workplace are few and far between. While our location is great for those who are looking for a mid-afternoon jolt of fresh air via a stroll in the park, the only quick food spots are the Copper Pot (expensive to eat-in, but better than their take-out menu) and Zuppas (has a cult following because of a dearth of neighbourhood choices, I think, as their mainstay wraps and pastas are just not that good).

A few coworkers and I were looking for fresh ideas, and I remembered Saigon Givral (11005 Jasper Avenue). Offering a healthy and interesting alternative to sandwiches, their Vietnamese subs were praised by many, including May.

Though we really could have bundled up and walked, we took the easy way out (or more challenging, actually, having to navigate the one-way roads) and drove. My coworker dropped me off at the non-descript strip of businesses beneath an apartment complex and drove off to find parking.

Entering Saigon Givral, it is clear that their primary mode of business is takeout. The space is dominated by the counter, where the subs are made fresh to order. There were a few small tables and folding chairs set up against the perimeter of the entrance, but I’m sure for the most part they functioned more as a waiting area than anything else. I was greeted by the friendly proprietor, who promptly took down my multi-item requests. It was early for the lunch crowd (11am), but likely the chilly weather deterred what is usually a brisk time of business for them. The lack of accessible parking reveals the nature of the typical Saigon Givral customer – those within walking distance in the towers nearby.

For $5.25 (including tax!), I was given an oven-toasted 12 inch sub filled with either satayed chicken or beef, mozzarella, pickled carrots, cucumber, onion, green peppers, cilantro, homemade mayonnaise and black pepper for some kick. I agreed to split half of my chicken sub for half of my workmate’s beef version, so I was able to try both types of meat. In my opinion, the beauty of these subs was the absolute melding of flavours. The cheese melted between the crevices in between the vegetables and the meat, and the mustard-y mayonnaise rounded out the sandwich nicely. My only modest critique is that Saigon Givral uses regular submarine bread (as opposed to the more traditional French baguette), but even that can be overlooked for the sheer portion size and the preference that some people have for softer bread.

The proprietor recommended calling ahead to order (hours are 10am-7pm, Monday to Friday, and 11am-5pm on Saturdays) for prompt pick-up, but as my brief wait was pleasant, I don’t think I would mind just dropping in again in the future. And really, for $5.25, the deal cannot be beat by anyone else within walking distance of Saigon Givral.

Restaurant Exterior


My sub

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Thursday, February 07, 2008

Edmonton Opera: "H.M.S. Pinafore"

I had heard about Edmonton Opera's Explorers' Club a few years ago, but it didn't seem economical to join until I read about their 2007/2008 lineup. The venerable Stewart Lemoine would be rewriting Gilbert & Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore, and thus, even if I didn't use my membership to purchase tickets for the other shows that season, it would still be worthwhile.

As the play neared, it was released that Jeff Haslam would be among the cast members. At the time, I thought his involvement was more of a token gesture; a thoughtful inclusion of a longtime Teatro associate. Little did I know that he would play a leading role, if not one that upstaged the rest of the cast all together.

While this was my first opera, it wasn't my first experience at the opera. I had volunteered during the earlier run of Carmen, so I knew that many, if not most of the patrons dressed to the nines (yes, cocktail dresses and four-inch heels in the dead of winter). The majority of the audience was not surprisingly comprised of the older set, though I do think the Explorers' Club is doing a fine job of trying to foster appreciation of this art form with younger professionals.

I convinced Mack that the Opera Talk prior to curtain was a good way to orient ourselves to the history, plotline and characters of Pinafore, so we arrived earlier enough to join a modest crowd in the Kasaa lobby. I didn't understand all of Dr. David Cook's jokes, but the overview of the story would be helpful to my appreciation of the show later on. Mack and I both thought that he seemed a little too keen on Jeff Haslam, however.

I don't know Gilbert & Sullivan well enough (well, at all, really) to recognize how Lemoine "improved" the script, but in the end, Pinafore really didn't seem like that much of a leap for him - farce is his specialty, romance his standard, and unusual settings his forte. This opera could be considered typical Lemoine...with musical interludes. I will admit that it was no small joy on being able to hear "He is an Englishman" sung live, as it was used in one of my favorite episodes of West Wing ("It's from Penzance!" "No, it was from Pinafore!"). And Haslam? He was tailor-made for the role of flamboyant, self-centered Sir Joseph Porter, so much so that I can't help but think that Lemoine must have specifically requested his participation, as the part was undoubtedly written with him in mind. He was hilarious in his mannerisms, delivery, and even his uproarious laughter (because no one has a cackle as distinctive as his).

As for the production itself, I had a few nitpicks. The lighting was odd throughout, bordering on distracting, actually (was the blue, spinning, simulation of the waves really necessary?). It also seemed that the costume designers should have given Ralph Rackstraw's character some kind of distinctive piece to wear; otherwise, he too easily blended in with the rest of the ship's crew. The symmetrical set was functional and allowed for great visuals and movement during the chorus numbers, but I couldn't see how it was as "special" as continuously touted in the program and in the show's introduction by Artistic Director Brian Deedrick.

As a member of the Explorers' Club, Mack and I were able to partake in a pizza and beer reception during intermission. Getting to and from the second balcony to the basement of the Jubilee Auditorium in twenty minutes was a slight challenge though.

Opera really isn't my area of expertise, but all I hear is how expensive it is to produce, and how ticket prices barely cover the costs (Deedrick offered the statistic that only 42% is reimbursed through ticket sales, while the rest is supported by government donations and private sponsorship). If that's the case, isn't it possible to offer more than three shows, given what must be a very large overhead to construct sets and costume from scratch, on top of rehearsals and expenses that I can't even begin to know? Perhaps there isn't enough demand (or people who can afford to see it) in Edmonton, but it just seems an extraordinary waste of resources to only offer three opportunities to see a very good local production.

I'd like to attend Falstaff in the spring (my last chance to get "cheap" tickets this year), and I do think that will be a more genuine litmus test as to whether or not I truly enjoy opera. Pinafore was a treat, there being just a slim chance that I wouldn't find it entertaining - it was in English (making the availability of supertitles less of an issue), penned by Lemoine, featuring Haslam, and more light hearted than what I'd expect from more traditional operas. This was "opera-lite", so after Falstaff, I will reassess my feeling about the medium then.

Haslam in H.M.S. Pinafore

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Cooking Chronicles: White Chocolate Mousse with Berries

This article from the Globe and Mail and this one from the New York Times both capture how I felt coming up to Super Tuesday. After a mini "Primary Party" held on the day of the New Hampshire primary, I had been planning on having a "Super Tuesday Shindig" (hee) for some time, even if it were just me in attendance.

While I wish I was as creative as some of the party hosts mentioned in the articles (a drink named Barack's HOPE, or even better, Clinton sausage ball appetizers), I thought a dessert made using the colors of the American flag would be a nice touch.

Donna Hay's Instant Cook provided the recipe - White Chocolate Mousse with Berries. Resembling Panna Cotta more than what I usually regard as mousse, the only difference between the two recipes was the addition of white chocolate and the subtraction of honey. The mousse was also a lot faster to put together - both in stove top and necessary cooling time (only 45 minutes!).

Because of the chocolate, the mousse was slightly heavier (even though I halved the chocolate quantity by accident...). The use of frozen blueberries was also a bad idea; the juice seeped from them when I thawed them in the fridge, leaving them rather bland tasting.

While I received neutral feedback for the dessert, my family and Mack all commented that they much prefer Panna Cotta. Perhaps I will play with this recipe in the future; it would function as a great last minute dinner dessert, and could easily set while dinner is being served.

White Chocolate Mousse with Berries

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Monday, February 04, 2008

Quotable Potpourri: Installment Nine

  • "I rather like my stumblings. Sometimes, they lead me to some pretty great places." – Jennifer Aniston

  • "It is a simple fact that all of us use the techniques of acting to achieve whatever ends we seek….Acting serves as the quintessential social lubricant and a device for protecting our interests and gaining advantage in every aspect of life." – Marlon Brando

  • "Elegance is good taste plus a dash of daring." – Carmel Snow

  • "Of all the things you wear, your expression is the most important." – Janet Lane

  • "It’s a helluva start, being able to recognize what makes you happy." – Lucille Ball


Sunday, February 03, 2008

Random Notes

  • Congrats to my sister Felicia and the rest of her McNally cheer squad for winning first in their division in the University of Alberta Extreme Cheer Competition this weekend.
  • Do you remember S Club 7? I've been listening to some of their "hits" and have been reminded of how sweetly addictive their music is. Besides that, their videos are just as cute as they were when I first saw them ("You", for one, and "You're My Number One").
  • Another Sawmill is opening up in the Capilano Mall parking lot in May, reports the Edmonton Journal.
  • Mack pointed me to a very cute blog titled simply breakfast - every day the author posts a photo of her morning meal. I may end up with breakfast envy, heh.
  • I tried a chocolate cupcake at Starbucks this week (these perfectly preserved sweets show themselves right around Valentine's Day). It wasn't as good as the vanilla version, but for $2.05 including tax, it's a great way to satisfy your sweet tooth.

    Tempting, no?


Saturday, February 02, 2008

Lunar New Year Extravaganza 2008

Unbeknownst to me, a Chinese rite of passage in Edmonton is attending the annual Edmonton Chinatown Multi-cultural Centre Lunar New Year Extravaganza. While I participated in the festivities as a child, I haven't done so in recent memory.

My family and I had to be at the Northlands Agricom for Felicia's cheerleading competition anyway on Saturday, so we decided to pop down to the grounds earlier to allow us some free time to check out the sights.

Turns out there wasn't much to see. We were clearly there much too early (around noon), and it is my understanding that the crowds didn't start to build until the late afternoon, but for my purposes anyway, it demonstrated to me that I wasn't missing much.

Amanda in an empty hall

The booths, dispensing a predictable variety of trinkets, decorative items, jewelry and the like, were bland, although my parents (also predictably) were drawn to the DVD vendor immediately.

Poor little girl forced to play dress up

Dried goods

Lots of earrings

With a qi pao

My parents raid the DVD vendor

My sister and I tried to get some fried noodles to take with us to the next hall, but they were unfortunately out for our half an hour window. I ended up with a green onion cake ($3), while Amanda's two spring rolls were really not worth the $3 she paid.

If I do partake in next year's "Extravaganza", I'll be sure to time it so there are performances taking place during my visit, and a crowd so a festive atmosphere is possible.

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