Optimistically Cautious

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

Geese!

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

Us

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