Optimistically Cautious

Monday, March 31, 2008

Random Notes

  • Mack and I decided to go on a photo walk on a lazy Sunday afternoon - just snapping pictures as we wandered around Downtown Edmonton. Check out the photo set here.
  • I received a nice surprise in the mail this week - a package advertising the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra's upcoming season, complete with a CD of music which samples what will likely be played next year. Cool!
  • Teatro la Quindicina will be back in May! At long last.
  • I had to cringe when I saw a page advertising South Edmonton Common as a neighbourhood to visit in the March/April edition of Where Edmonton. Do we really want out-of-towners to think box stores are all the city has to offer?
  • There was actually a banner advertising The Hills on the front page of tsn.ca the other day. Though I'm sure many women frequent the sports website, are there enough in the show's target demographic to make it worthwhile?
  • More Hills-related news: there may be a feature-length film in the works. Seriously?
  • I finally watched Atonement, and boy was it disappointing. I couldn't get used to how the camera lingered on seemingly unimportant scenes for much too long, and how the relationship between Keira Knightley and James McAvoy wasn't fleshed out, especially as it was framed as the crux of the movie.
  • On the good-rental front, I loved Enchanted! The musical numbers were fun, and this was definitely a star turn for Amy Adams. It was nice to see Idina Menzel pop up as well. Have you seen any good movies lately?


Sunday, March 30, 2008

Food Notes

    A supersized version to make up for a lack of food notes last week:

    • I've been found: Kerstin's Chocolates linked to my blog post about The Cocoa Room on the News events of their website.
    • Rumor, as reported by Bob Mac on Chowhound: "the folks from Luxe are opening a lounge in the space below the reovated condos formerly occupied by Terry Vaugn's Sports Bar." Hmm...
    • Edmonton has a new-ish independent coffee house: The Wired Cup (9418 91 Street) is part cafe (serving coffee made from Transcend beans and tea from Steeps) and part gift store.
    • Speaking of coffee, Starbucks announced their acquisition of The Coffee Equipment Company, makers of the $11,000 Clover coffee maker. Besides phasing in Clover machines into their stores, they will also be introducing a rewards program and an online community.
    • Judy Schultz was back this week with a Bistro column on the Grueneberg family behind Greens, Eggs and Ham.
    • I like the idea of alternative dining areas - in Calgary, Vue Cafe offers art alongside their open kitchen, and the Calgary Zoo offers brunch on Sundays!
    • If you're looking for a local farmer's market to tide you over until the City Centre resumes operation in May, look no further than the Salisbury Greenhouse in Sherwood Park. A list of about 30 vendors is here (I love that they've done their best to take pictures of the majority of the vendors as well).
    • Via Serious Eats, a quote in the New Yorker worth considering from chef David Chang on the internal pressures he faces: "It's not that I'm not happy; I'm just fearful for the future. I'm fearful that everything's gonna be taken away. Fear is a driving force for most of the things that I do. I don't know if that's healthy." So honest.
    • Chang is one of the five chefs nominated in the "Best Chef: NYC" category for the prestigous James Beard Awards. Nice to see Gramercy Tavern nominated, if not only because I had the privilege of eating there in December, and even nicer to see Canadian Trish Magwood's book Dish Entertains up for an award.
    • After reading what a New York Times writer did with food purchased from local 99cent stores, I'm tempted to attempt a similar experiment.
    • Iron Chef America is being turned into a video game. It was only a matter of time, I guess. But then again, if I can "be" Bobby Flay, I can't say I wouldn't give it a try!
    • I can't speak highly enough of Route 99 Diner (8820 99 Street). Comfortable, clean, offering good service and greasy spoon favorites, if you need a quick meal, look no further than Route 99. Here are a few photos to whet your appetite:

    Grilled Ham & Cheese

    Pepperoni & Mushroom Pizza


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    Saturday, March 29, 2008

    The Cooking Chronicles: White Chocolate Tartlets

    Dessert party practice-run #2 involved a Giada recipe for White Chocolate Hazelnut Tartlets. As neither of us had worked with phyllo pastry before, I knew we had to try it with time to spare before attempting to duplicate it without error next week.

    After finding out that toasting hazelnuts would take nearly half an hour, I decided to leave them out this time. The white chocolate and whipped cream mixture was a cinch to whip up, and after it had chilled in the fridge for an hour, it was time to move on to the phyllo.

    I had let the package thaw on the counter since the afternoon, so the thin sheets of pastry were more than pliable. So much so that a tear appeared in more than one sheet. Thankfully, the layers of brushed butter and phyllo covered any small mistakes we made.

    We scrunched them down in large muffin tins, doing our best to create "artful" edges, and baked them for about 8 minutes. We figured the mini-muffin tins would be better for dessert-party servings, and will be making smaller versions next week.

    A drop of Nutella into a cooled phyllo cup, a dollop of white chocolate whipped cream, and a sprinkling of chocolate shavings later, the tartlets was done. One that should be made just prior to serving, it may be the only dessert that we will be creating from scratch (the Nutella doesn't count, Andrea), the morning of.

    Just over a week to go!

    Mack doing the dishes (he offered!)

    White Chocolate Tartlets

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    Delivered at your own Expense: Dawat

    A combination of three things resulted in our decision to order from Dawat on Saturday: 1) I was feeling particularly lazy; 2) I had been craving Indian food for the last week; and 3) Mack was on a spicy-food streak that he didn't want to break.

    I had read positive things about Dawat (granted, from an eat-in experience), but as the advertisement in the 2007/2008 Yellow Pages restaurants section boasted a promise of free delivery for those in the south side, our decision was made.

    We called the Dawat located in Little India (9250 34 Avenue), and ordered Butter Chicken (a must), Beef Vindaloo (always spicy), Mixed Vegetables (for token healthiness), and Garlic Naan (when I asked how big the serving size was, I received a response of "Good enough."). We had some coconut milk in the house, and though more Thai than Indian, my Mum made us some coconut rice to accompany our dishes.

    At the end of our order, I was told the total would be $45.99, including tax. Count me surprised - my estimated total from the prices listed in the Restaurant Pages was closer to $37. It turns out the beef and chicken dishes had increased in cost from $11.95 to $14.95, while the vegetables had gone up from $8.95 to $11.95. Though I don't regret giving their delivery service a try, it would have been cheaper just to take advantage of their in-house buffet.

    At any rate, our order was delivered promptly within the 45 to 60 minute range, with all of our food still fairly hot. The containers were smaller than we expected however, especially given the exorbitant price increase over the last year.

    The butter chicken was the definite stand-out of the three - tender meat enveloped in a thick, slightly sweet sauce. It was also the least spicy of the dishes, and the only one I could actually taste; after a few bites of the beef vindaloo and mixed vegetables, I was crying for milk, or anything else that would return the sensation into my mouth.

    We had enough food left over for another meal at the end of it, and it did satisfy my craving for Indian cuisine, but because of the expense, I still don't think it was worth it.


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    Bustling but Bland: Upper Crust Cafe

    I met May for brunch at Upper Crust Cafe (10909 86 Avenue) on Saturday morning. I had been there for dinner many years ago, but had been meaning to try their popular Saturday brunch for a while now.

    No reservations were permitted, so we made sure to arrive before 11am to hopefully avoid the weekend breakfast crowd. There were quite a few seats when I stepped into the restaurant, and thus I was seated right away. While waiting for May, I surveyed the dining area. I loved the bustling room, with the irresistible chiming of dishes and conversational overtones catching in the rafters. The room, lined with windows allowing for the meek sunshine available that morning to pour through, helped brighten the space, and made for a lovely daytime setting.

    After May arrived, we looked over the menu, focusing on the more filling options. What stuck out the most to me were the reasonable prices - none of the plates were over $10. May chose the Tex-Mex Eggs, 2 poached eggs on an English muffin,with spicy salsa, served with hashbrowns and fresh fruit garnish ($9.75), while I opted for one of the three omelette options (potato, green onion, cheese), which was served with multigrain toast and fresh fruit garnish ($9.75).

    The service wasn't notable (it took a while for my coffee to be refilled), but it wasn't horrible either, especially given the size of the room our server had to cover. That said, the food wasn't particularly exciting either. May found the salsa rather bland, and the English muffin underneath her eggs too soggy to be enjoyable. My omelette was rather devoid of cheese, and although the potatoes provided the hearty kick that I was looking for, even a side of ketchup would have added some needed "flavour" to my dish.

    While I can't say I won't be back (the setting and location of Upper Crust make it a convenient meeting place), there are a few other local brunch spots I'd defer to before returning.


    Tex-Mex Eggs

    3 Egg Omelette (with some potato peeking out)

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    Friday, March 28, 2008

    Fresh and Friendly: Da Capo Cafe

    I had a quick coffee at Da Capo Caffe (8738-109 Street) over the summer, but I had always been meaning to go back to give their menu a try. An opportunity came up on Wednesday evening to do so.

    While I'm still not sure that I like the design of the cafe, I understand the reasoning behind it. The dining area is essentially split in half by the substantially-sized staff/food preparation area smack in the middle of the cafe. This does allow for two lines - one for espressos and another for food, but in my opinion this division creates a lack of harmony in the seating space.

    At any rate, I approached a staff member with the simple question of "What is there to eat?" He led me to a chalkboard menu on the other side of the counter, listing a dozen or so pizzas, calzones and salads in the $10-15 range. I did a quick scan of my options, and chose the Margherita ($10.50, including tax). A patron next to me in line ordered the black truffle-prosciutto-parmesan variety without hesitation, which the server noted was his own favorite, so I may have to return in the future to try a more adventurous topping combination. A note on payment - cash is the only means accepted, so like Leva, you have to be prepared.

    I took a seat on one of the stools facing the windows looking out onto 109 Street (I find the rest of the space much too dim), and was immediately brought my requested glass of water. The wait was tempered by a free weekly I had picked up on the way, and half-way through the paper, my pizza arrived. The server wasn't kidding when he said the pizza was ideal for sharing - it was huge! The sauce was reminiscent of the sweet tomato base used by Famoso, nice and light, but the best part of the pizza was by far the crust. Addictively crunchy, I would have gladly consumed an entire plate of breadsticks made from the bread alone. And though it hit the spot that day, I would pick Leva's version if forced to choose.

    Still, with great service and interesting menu items, I wouldn't hesitate to return to Da Capo.

    Margherita Pizza

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    Thursday, March 27, 2008

    The 2008-2009 Citadel Theatre Season

    I've mentioned my affinity for local, community-based theatre instead of the more mainstream and well-known Citadel Theatre in the past. But if their upcoming 2008-2009 season is any indication of future offerings, I may have to look at integrating their plays into my yearly theatre schedule.

    Ronnie Burkett, master puppeteer, will be premiering his brand new show, Billie Twinkie: Requiem for a Golden Boy, in October. From the media release:

    "Billy Twinkle is a middle-aged cruise ship puppeteer who dazzles audiences with his Stars in Miniature marionette niteclub act. His saucy burlesque stripper Rusty Knockers titillates the tourists, octogenarian Murray Spiegelmann invokes sidesplitting laughter with the inflatable balloon in his pants, Bumblebear juggles and roller-skates and steals the hearts of every audience, and Biddy Bantam Brewster brings a bit of highbrow hilarity to the high seas with her drunken aria. Billy is the best in the business and on top of the world as he floats along through life.

    "Until he is fired by the cruiseline. Standing at the edge of the ship contemplating a watery demise, Billy is abruptly called back to reality when his dead mentor Sid Diamond appears as a hand puppet. Sid literally will not leave his side, and forces Billy to re-enact his life as a puppet show in order to remember and rekindle the passion Billy once had for puppets, people and the dream of a life that sparkles.

    "For anyone stuck in the middle – mid-career, mid-love, mid-life – caught between our own past and future, this requiem for a golden boy shines a little light on the wonder of youthmeeting the wisdom of age with a kick in the pants to finish what we started."

    It sounds whimsical, fantastical, and I have no doubt it will be a visual spectacle that has to be seen. I can already see the beads of sweat forming on Burkett's brow, as when he last peformed in Edmonton.

    March will see the premiere of Extinction Song:

    "Meet James. Seven years old, he has escaped to a fantasy world where he is being raised by wolves. Every day is a new adventure until, frightened they are on the verge of becoming extinct, James and the wolves concoct a plan to save themselves. Extinction Song is a funny, tender and heartbreaking account of a child’s way of coping with the troubled world around him."

    The primary reason behind wanting to see this play is attributed to the star - none other than Ron Pederson! He's more than used to wacky roles after cutting many a tooth on Stewart Lemoine's creations, and I can just see him easily retreating back into a believable, heartbreaking childlike state similar to the character he played in the last half of Shocker's Delight! I can't wait.

    I've actually already seen Marty Chan's The Forbidden Phoenix. Or at least, the earlier incarnation without the music and Peking Opera-inspiration. From the release:

    "This fascinating new play by Edmonton’s literary genius Marty Chan is loosely based on the experience of the Chinese immigrants brought to Canada to work on the railroad in the 1800s. The enthralling story weaves together elements of history, diversity and environmentalism.

    "Sun Wukong is the Monkey King, torn from his son Laosan and exiled to the west after displeasing the almighty Empress Dowager. Forced to work for the mighty Horne in Terminal City, he sets off to make his fortune. He need only conquer Gold Mountain and free the Iron Dragon to realize his dream of being reunited with his son.

    "This enthralling fable is a fusion of Peking Opera, martial arts, acrobatics and "western" musical theatre. This powerful story of a father’s sacrifice to provide for his family will stay with you always."

    I remember being disappointed with the original Forbidden Phoenix, but beyond that, I can't remember any specifics. That said, it's been interesting following Chan's process while writing and revising this new version of the play on his blog, so I'd be remiss if I didn't at least attempt to see the final product.

    It should be clear that my interest in the Citadel is less about the institution itself and more about my desire to follow my favorite actors and writers to whatever stage they will be performing on. And if anything, I hope exposure to these local artists will draw those who rarely venture beyond the Citadel to the other theatre districts in Edmonton.

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    Wednesday, March 26, 2008


    Plugging away at this blog, juggling restaurant reviews, staying afloat of local culinary news, and maintaining my kitchen experiments have almost become an unpaid part-time job. But I love it.

    I didn't start this blog with the intent of narrowing the focus to all things epicurean, but it has become that way, and I have accepted my development into a full-fledged food enthusiast. And what better common ground than exercising one's sense of taste? Food is disarming; it brings people together; but most of all, it facilitates memorable experiences. In blogging about restaurants and recipes, I hope that my excitement about the possibilities of food translate - dishes to gather around, places perfect for a specific mood or occasion, and events that incite a better appreciation for what the city has to offer.

    As mentioned in my three hundredth post, it was no coincidence that my interest in food heightened right around the time that I began documenting my eating adventures. What I didn’t realize until recently however, is how important of a role those around me have played in supporting my newfound appreciation for everything edible. From my diner buddy to my pho friend, Latin food connoisseur and Asian cuisine cheerleader, coworkers who never tire of my incessant ramblings, and all who have shared a kitchen with me, I thank you for humoring me with your interest, patience, and appetites.

    The best thing about a personal blog, of course, is that I don't have to limit my content. I do still enjoy commenting about the arts scene, and in particular, the wonderful plays staged by the theatre community. And so, despite the proliferation of food-centric posts, I will continue to think of myself as a blogger who simply happens to write often about food.

    Onward to the next 500! Thanks for reading!

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    Monday, March 24, 2008

    The Cooking Chronicles: Buttermilk Biscuit Sandwiches

    Before my string of cooking experimentations, I was quite used to biscuits made from dry mix. Just recently, I found out how much better from-scratch, cold butter-incorporated biscuits are. Ina Garten's Cheddar-Dill version turned out great, and this afternoon, Mack and I decided to give Bobby Flay's Buttermilk Biscuits a try.

    I gave Mack the most difficult job of creaming the butter with the dry ingredients, and then having to try to form a ball of dough with the small amount of buttermilk we were permitted to wet the mixture with. I will admit to cheating a little and adding slightly more milk than called for in the recipe, but who wouldn't? Also, because we had the intention of forming sandwiches out of our biscuits, we used a 3 inch circular cutter instead of the recommended 2.5 inches to allow for a more hearty serving.

    Scooping up slices of chicken breast and shredding some marble we had sitting in the fridge, our sandwiches were born (we considered scrambling eggs briefly as well, but by then, we just wanted to assemble and eat them). The biscuits were flaky and crunchy, just the way I like them, though really, with the butter content, this recipe is almost fail safe.

    I'd be interested in playing with different filling combinations (basil/buffalo mozzarella/tomato, crushed fruit), and making this recipe a weekend breakfast standby.

    Buttermilk Biscuits with Smoked Chicken and Marble Cheese

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    Sunday, March 23, 2008

    Tidbits: Notes on Edmonton's Epicurean Scene

    • See Magazine reviewed the recently opened Mor, a new Mediterreanean Turkish restaurant (15620 95 Street, 758-4545).
    • Where Edmonton reports that Acqua Marina Italian Restaurant (13578 Fort Road, 457-8855) is receiving critical acclaim.
    • As noted in City Palate, Mangiamos (10124 124 Street) will be transforming into Vintage Lounge, which will offer "a distinctive wine list in a sleek and sexy atmosphere." I hope this change means at least more consistent operating hours.
    • The Edmonton Journal reviewed Way of Life Mode de Vie (10203 116 Street) in their Style section on Saturday, a vegan restaurant that opened at the end of last year.
    • Sorrentino's launches their 17th annual month-long Garlic Festival on April 1.
    • While not independent, these restaurant groups are prospering in chain-happy Edmonton: a new Swiss Chalet (4004 17 Street) is just about ready in the 17th Street complex; expect a new Hudsons in West Edmonton Mall in May; and a new Moxie's is being built in South Edmonton Common.

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    Saturday, March 22, 2008

    Transcend Coffee

    I'm a little torn on whether or not I should even write a review on our visit to Transcend Coffee (9869 62 Avenue), consistently lauded in the media and by local foodies for their approach to coffee. Granted, we had huge expectations, particularly after our sojourn to Calgary's Phil & Sebastian's, for an equally fantastic experience. But I'm sad to say that Transcend didn't live up to the hype.

    Surrounded by industrial buildings and warehouses, we weren't sure what the inside of Transcend would look like. Turns out, they probably ended up choosing the off-the-beaten-path location more for cheap rent than anything else, as they had two whole floors to themselves, with the main floor divided into a retail front space with limited seating and a coffee "laboratory" and roasting area in a separate room in the back.

    Count me as surprised when I spotted a Clover on the counter...I guess we didn't have to head south after all to test out fresh French-pressed coffee. Anyway, I approached the barista with this open question, which in hindsight, probably wasn't the right way to start off a conversation: "We're new. Can you provide us with an introduction?" She probed us for our usual coffee preferences, and after telling her that we wanted a lighter brew, she recommended the Ethiopia Yirgacheffe. We ordered two regular Clover-brewed cups, which came to $5.

    Though I understand that not every independent cafe employee is as outgoing and passionate as the one we encountered at Phil & Sebastian's, it is difficult not to directly compare the two. Transcend's barista really wasn't chatty, and as we surveyed the room, it seemed to us that the Transcend crowd was made up entirely of regulars. That morning anyway, we felt like the odd patrons out.

    After an abbreviated wait, we were given two filled coffee-press vessels and two Bodum double-walled glasses. We headed to the second floor to access their additional seating area, and found that we had the room to ourselves. While quiet, the furnishings had us thinking we had infiltrated someone's home office and living room - between the desk and open files on one side, a mishmash of furniture, and a television in the corner, we didn't feel as "at home" as we were supposed to.

    Our coffee had a light brown hue to it, almost the color it takes on after the addition of milk. It was thin, and to me, had acidic notes to it, though Mack disagreed with that assertion. He remarked about its lack of an aftertaste, but we both noted that it probably wasn't the type meant to provide that morning jolt - we were ready for more after finishing our cups. After my second brush with Clover-brewed coffee, I'm starting to question whether or not it does make a difference, at least to me. I hope the coffee tasting Mack and I are planning to attend later this spring will shed some light on specialty beans and brewing processes.

    Perhaps Phil & Sebastian's spoiled me, or perhaps I shouldn't be looking for an "experience" at a cafe, but there has to be something (like the people and the passion behind the coffee) that sets the independents apart from the Starbucks and Second Cups of the world.


    At the bar

    Second floor seating area

    Our coffees

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    Not as Advertised: Pizzeria Prego

    I posted earlier this month about Pizzeria Prego (5860 111 Street), specifically about wanting to try what I have been calling their "breakfast pizza." The Sunrise, one of their many unique offerings, is advertised as being topped with zesty tomato sauce, mozzarella, bacon, scrambled egg, cheddar and tomatoes.

    Mack and I decided to give Prego their due on Friday. I called just after 5:30pm to place an order, and was surprised when told that our pizza would be ready in 20 minutes. Perhaps it was the fact that they were open at all on a holiday, but we thought the supper rush would have had us waiting at least half an hour. Though I opted for the regular crust, I liked the fact that we had a few options to choose from, including whole what, sesame flax, and sunflower & pumpkin seed (they also sell frozen pizza dough for those interested).

    We arrived at their Lendrum strip mall location after 6pm. They have a handful of tables set up for those wanting to eat in, but I'm certain the majority of their business is take-out and delivery-based. We were immediately greeted by a staff member, and provided with a plain white box, which appeared to be the only pizza on stand-by. The box had been sitting on what resembled a hot plate, but there were no heat lamps in sight.

    Though we'll gladly take some of the blame for not picking up the pizza more promptly, Mack would have preferred a hotter pie. I was more disappointed in the disparity between what was advertised on their website and flyer and the toppings that we were presented with. The sauce wasn't "zesty" by any definition, the eggs were of the hard boiled and not scrambled variety, and there wasn't a tomato in sight. A smattering of herbs (basil or perhaps parsley) would have added some nice color and freshness as well. On the bright side, the bacon was crisp and flavourful, and the crust was crunchy and just lightly oiled. It was also unusual that they decided to cut the slices into squares instead of the more typical triangles; that is something I would specifically request if we were to return to Prego in the future.

    Pizzeria Prego does have a few more varieties I'd be interested in trying (the Spudizza for one: pizza dough brushed with garlic parsley butter, seasoned mashed potatoes, cheddar and real bacon bits), but at $22.49 for a large Sunrise, it definitely wouldn't be an everyday indulgence.


    In box, will travel

    Sunrise pizza

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    Friday, March 21, 2008

    Girls' Night In

    You know you are old when: instead of ordering pizza or takeout of some kind, you decide to flex your communal cooking muscles and prepare food as a group.

    That's what Annie, Janice, May and I did on Thursday. Well, I guess I can't say I helped much, as my salad and cake contributions were already prepared, but it was fun to be in an active kitchen as a group nonetheless!

    Annie and parsley

    May flavouring her chicken dish

    Janice checks on her curry chicken

    Busy stovetop

    The food turned out great, as you can see in these pictures:

    Annie's pasta

    May's Pineapple Chicken

    Janice's Curry Chicken

    Presenting my chocolate cake, crazed Martha Stewart-style

    I can only hope we will have more such gatherings in the future. I love to cook, but cooking with friends is always even more fun!

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    The Cooking Chronicles: Beatty's (Spotted) Chocolate Cake

    I was feeling uncharacteristically uninspired this week in choosing a dish for a potluck with a few friends of mine. Lately, I seem to work better with parameters of some kind, whether it be the need for portability, a dish theme, or a color ideal.

    I decided finally to browse the Food Network site to see if anything would strike my fancy, and came across an Ina Garten recipe for chocolate cake. It seemed straightforward enough, and as I still hadn't found a suitable "statement cake" for my dessert party (I wasn't happy with how my tiramisu turned out a few weeks ago), I thought it could be a potential candidate.

    I enlisted Mack's help as my sous chef (hee), and we plodded through the recipe using a KitchenAid stand-up mixer. I typically prefer combining ingredients by hand, and after this go-around, I found it wasn't necessary to use the mixer at all.

    We didn't have any trouble with the cake portion of the recipe (except perhaps knowing to forgo the parchment paper lining next time), but the icing was another story. By the time the baking chocolate had cooled to room temperature, some of it had actually hardened, thus streaking our icing with chocolate chunks. "Spotted" in the title refers to the overall appearance of our cake, though even I must admit our mistake made for a textured icing that garnered no complaints.

    The cake turned out moist, and the mocha-flavoured icing was something I'd definitely make again. My Mum commented that the cake wasn't too sweet (translation: she liked it), and all of my friends had seconds at the potluck. Have I found a dessert party winner?

    Mack learning how to flour a cake pan

    Beatty's Chocolate Cake

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    Tuesday, March 18, 2008

    Food Escape to Calgary: Day 2

    Of course my favorite type of meal - brunch - had to be eaten in a diner. I settled in the end on Galaxie Diner (1411 11 Street SW), located just outside of the downtown core.

    Galaxie Diner exterior

    Walking up to the front door, it didn't look good - the line up actually spilled onto the sidewalk. Thankfully, our wait was just under half an hour, and wasn't unpleasant in the warm spring sunshine. We had time to peer in the window of the restaurant next door - Palace of Eats - which turned out to be owned and operated by the purveyors of Galaxie.

    The number of seats in Galaxie are few - 6 booths and a handful of seats along the counter, but with fast, efficient, and friendly service, it's no surprise that patrons are willing to wait.

    Galaxie interior

    Mack enjoying his first coffee of the day

    While Diner Deluxe and Avenue Diner can be considered more upscale, Galaxie Diner doesn't pretend to be anything other than a good old neighbourhood greasy spoon. A variety of menu items including omelettes, eggs benedicts, French toast and a parfait meant most tastes would be satisfied. I decided to order the Montreal Smoked Meat Omelette ($11.75), while Mack customized his Omelette of Choice with mushrooms, ham, and cheese ($11.75). Both were served with unlimited hashbrowns and toast.

    Our seat at the counter provided the perfect vantage point of the stove and the two cooks behind it. One had perfected cracking an egg with one hand, and both juggled multiple orders on the same griddle with ease.

    Hot on the grill

    I almost wish I had a scale to weigh my plate before digging in - the serving was absolutely massive. The omelette was the heartiest I've ever had - the Montreal Smoked Meat was more flavourful than ham, but less dense than bacon, and really helped make an otherwise standard breakfast option "pop."

    Montreal Smoked Meat Omelette

    The goodies inside my omelette

    Mack's custom omelette

    Inside Mack's omelette

    With the bill, we were given two Dubble Bubbles - another reminder of the restaurant's retro feel and fun.

    Bubble gum!

    My next planned stop was the Calgary Farmer's Market. Though we had the address, we did not have a detailed map that would help lead us there. Luckily, Mack's iPod picked up an unsecured wireless signal, and we were saved.

    iPod to the rescue! (No, I am not affiliated with Apple in any way.)

    Located in an old airport hangar, I was surprised at the sheer size of the market - it is at least twice the size of Old Strathcona's, if not more.

    Market exterior

    Market interior

    With over eighty merchants selling everything from handmade crafts, flowers, sweets, preserves, seafood, beef, and of course, produce, this market offers most of the essentials sold at a supermarket. What surprised me about the produce was the availability of imported vegetables - tomatoes from Mexico, plantains and garlic from the U.S., fruit from New Zealand. This is in stark contrast to the focus of Edmonton's farmer's markets (and the ideal focus, in my opinion) on locally-grown products. Mack thought this variety could be attributed to the need to cater to the customer - attract them to the market with the atmosphere and unique items, but offer them what they would buy elsewhere.


    Pet treats

    Hi Sebastian!

    The main reason for our visit was to sample Phil & Sebastian Coffee. Their coffee and their Clover have a cult following in Calgary, and who were we to question the crowd?

    Phil & Sebastian Coffee kiosk

    The line-up

    The Clover

    The price for an individually-brewed cup of coffee was not listed on the overhead menu, so we weren't sure what we were getting ourselves into. It turns out, it wasn't so bad - the Ethiopian-sourced cup of coffee was $3.50.

    As we waited for our order, we chatted with the barista. He extolled the virtue of single-origin coffee, and we talked a bit about Edmonton's Transcend and Kerstin's Chocolates. More than the coffee itself, the passion exuded by the staff for their products made the trip here worthwhile. He even asked us to sniff the beans - twice - after they were ground by the machine.

    Design also seems to be a Phil & Sebastian strength - their sleek cups and simple but memorable logo help foster the ideal that Starbucks began - that a cup of coffee can offer the illusion of a better life. Printed on the sleeves:
    "We could write on the side of our cups about how we're nothing like the other guys. We could tell you about the pride we take in every drink we serve. We could write about the contents of this cup being hot, and that you should use caution. We could tell you that Phil's dad can run faster than your dad. We could write about our goal to raise your expectations of coffee. Or maybe, we could write on the side of our cups that you should probably stop reading this because your drink is getting cold. Enjoy."

    The barista told us to wait a bit before giving it a try (though it would have been impossible to do so if we wanted to - the coffee was scorching hot). The fruity tones were evident in the coffee's aroma, but wasn't noticeable in the drink itself. Mack noted that it tasted rich but not burnt, but in the end, I'm not sure I could identify a Clover-brewed coffee in a blind taste test. We're hoping to head to Transcend this weekend to see what Edmonton has to offer.

    "I have coffee and you don't."

    Chinook Centre was our final stop, since Mack was itching to go shopping and spend his wealth of gift cards. The obligatory stop at the nice and roomy RW & Co. yielded no treasures, but Mack did end up picking up something from Old Navy, so the visit wasn't fruitless.

    On our way back to Edmonton, we stopped in Red Deer to have dinner with Tom and Bry at Boston Pizza. The waitress was obviously new, or not very good at multitasking, but it gave us time to catch up. Mack and I ordered the poutine, and I hoped that it would be better than the time before, but no, the gravy was just as lukewarm. But food aside, it was a good meal.

    From my last few trips down to Calgary, I think I've finally been able to get past the elementary "must hate the city of the Flames" mentality. Not only do they have great restaurants, but the arts scene is more active than I could have ever imagined. Who knew?

    The rest of my pictures can be seen on Flickr.

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    Monday, March 17, 2008

    Food Escape to Calgary: Day 1

    Being Dine-Out week, as well as what I wanted to optimistically deem a spring thaw, Mack and I decided to head to Calgary this weekend to expand our culinary borders.

    After the half-day ETS Community Conference wrapped up, we headed to McDonald’s for some road trip sustenance. Thankfully, fast food wouldn’t set the tone for our food consumption over the next two days, but I will admit to enjoying my Quarter Pounder with Cheese (who knew two slices of processed cheese made such a difference?).

    Quarter Pounder, Big Mac and lots of fries

    We thought the road conditions would be poor, given that driving within the city was a slush-fest that morning, but the highway was in better shape than we expected, and so we made good time.

    I had decided upon the Westin for our accommodations, based on a good experience I had last summer (albeit in the fancy, renovated Business Tower), and the deal they were offering while I was comparison shopping. When we arrived, however, the second impression wasn’t positive. It was past 4pm (keeping in mind that the check-out time was noon), and we were told that our room still had to be cleaned, with a wait of at least forty-five minutes. Opting for fresh air instead of idling in the lounge, we walked over to the nearby Prince’s Island Park.

    Though there was still quite a bit of snow to be found on the riverbanks, there were a surprising number of ducks and geese near the water and in the park as a whole. More than that, these animals were so used to people (or are still carrying their winter weight) that they couldn’t be bothered to move away when we approached.

    Duck, duck, goose


    Out on a stroll

    River Café, nestled in Prince’s Island Park (was on my short list of Dine Out options, but would be a more appropriate choice in the summer, surrounded by trees in full color)

    Why wear a cowboy hat when you can swing on one?

    When we made it back to the hotel, we were pleased to find out that we had been upgraded to the Business Tower. Complimentary amenities included long-distance calls to anywhere in North America, wireless internet, Starbucks coffee, and a $21 breakfast credit for the in-house restaurant.

    Mack lounging

    I had planned a walkable itinerary for Saturday, so we headed for Stephen Avenue on foot. With some time to kill before our reservation, we ended up wandering around Rand McNally Bookstore. From their name, I thought they were only in the business of textbooks, but I was wrong. With wooden floors, a cozy cafe on the third level, and a children's area that reminded me of the one in You've Got Mail's fictional Fox Books, it would be a nice escape from the bustle of Stephen Avenue in the summer.

    Rand McNally Bookstore interior

    Promptly at 6pm, to Blink Restaurant & Bar (111 8th Avenue SW) we went. I posted about Blink Supper Club in May of last year, with a note that their revamped menu was boosting business somewhat. I guess it wasn't enough, as the original owners sold out, and the "club-by-night" concept gave way to a restaurant in its pure form. Out of my shortlist of Dine Out restaurants, Blink had the most interesting menu as well as a location conducive for the rest of the plan that evening.

    Blink exterior

    Upon entry, we were greeted by dramatic floor-to-ceiling length curtains, and then a friendly hostess, in that order. Like many a restaurant in Toronto, the dining room was narrow, but deep, lined with banquets, exposed brick, and dark wood. A wine case cleverly hid the DJ's platform and turnstiles, though one wonders if they will bother keeping this fixture at all. Before she seated us, the hostess asked if we were here for the Dine Out promotion, and offered us both the special and regular menus as a matter of courtesy (take that, Ric's Grill). The $35 pre-fixe included our choice of appetizer, entree, and dessert from a list of three in each category. Naturally, Mack and I chose completely different dishes to allow for a larger sample size.

    Blink interior

    Dine Out menu

    My puree of squash varietals (with honey and preserves lemon creme fraiche) was divine - not hot enough for my liking, but was finely strained yet thick enough to be substantial. Sweet with just a hint of lemon, it ended up being the best of my three courses. Perhaps it set too high of a bar, as the rest of the dishes were underwhelming. Mack enjoyed his heirloom beets (a pink and orange variety usually not seen) dressed in an orange vinaigrette, but probably would have been satisfied with an entire plate of their creamy, fresh goat cheese alone.

    Puree of squash varietals

    Heirloom beets

    Since being "denied" risotto in Italy, I have been on a quest to find the next best risotto in North America. But after Blink, I think I'm done - while great as a side, as a touch of savoury to a fish course, for example, I find I'm always looking for a bit of protein substance to follow the rice. Unfortunately with Blink's version as well, my serving had not been continuously stirred, and as a result, the grains were inconsistent - some plump with stock, others still uncooked and crunchy. And though my self-imposed food critic demands had me ordering something other than what Mack had chosen, I should have gone with my gut and opted for the arctic char instead. Mack loved the fish - lighter than salmon, crisp and flavourful, it was both filling and satisfying. I thought the breaded and fried potato galette was the best part though - it was creamy, carb-y, and smooth on the inside.

    Risotto of organic mushrooms

    Land locked arctic char

    For dessert, I couldn't pass up the vanilla creme brulee, though I still haven't found a restaurant that can duplicate the creme brulee I had on a cruise a few years ago. The cruise version spoiled me to expect a thin layer of custard, easily warmed through by a freshly torched surface. Blink's brulee wasn't bad - flavoured by real vanilla bean, it was definitely a dessert to savour. Mack didn't enjoy his sticky pudding with butterscotch as much; it was too rich for his taste.

    Vanilla creme brulee

    Sticky pudding with butterscotch

    The experience as a whole at Blink was great - attentive service, a refined atmosphere, and an elegant setting, I would recommend it for those looking for a higher end downtown dining destination. I am a bit disappointed that I wasn't able to see the transformation of the room into a club, however - I guess I will have to head east for that.

    After dinner, we headed to the most tourist-oriented part of our weekend: the Calgary Tower. Why? I had a coupon (heh), and though I had seen the view from the top during the day, the panoramic night display would be new to me.

    Going up in a plywood elevator (what would people who are afraid of heights think?)

    It turns out it really isn't anything special. Olympic Plaza looked nice lit from above, and the glass floor provided a momentary distraction, but other than that, we stayed just long enough to get our psychological money's worth.

    Glass floor

    At the top

    The next stop was a free outdoor Glenbow Museum exhibit on Darfur. From the website:

    "DARFUR/DARFUR is a provocative photography exhibit that will be projected onto Glenbow Museum's walls facing Stephen Avenue and 1st St. S.E. from March 14 to 21, 2008. Over 170 colour and black-and-white images by seven internationally acclaimed photojournalists and one former U.S. Marine will bring into focus the landscape, the culture and the people that are currently under attack in the Darfur region in western Sudan."

    I had a vision that the photographs would be projected on street-level walls, and if we hadn't heard a music cue, I wouldn't have even thought to look up. The use of space and the idea of hypothetically exposing people out in public to the atrocities in Darfur are interesting, but standing outside on a random downtown street, the exhibit wasn't as effective as it could have been.

    DARFUR/DARFUR exhibit

    Our last photo opportunity (as neither of us had skates) was Olympic Plaza. It was quite picturesque, especially with the lone skater on the pond, but when the snow, out of nowhere, started funnelling out of the sky, the bleak visibility forced us to turn back to the hotel.

    Olympic Plaza


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