Optimistically Cautious

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Cooking Chronicles: Flourless Chocolate Cake

Though I typically try to bring either an appetizer or a main to potlucks, I thought if there was ever an occasion to break that rule, our lunch gathering at work on Wednesday was one such day.

Having experienced the sublime richness of a flourless chocolate torte at Culina last week, I was decidedly focused on recreating that cake with a Tyler Florence recipe. I had meant to pick up a jar of dulce de leche topping at Superstore, but ended up substituting whipped cream instead.

For anyone with high cholesterol, I would recommend staying far away from this cake – 9 separated eggs later, we were halfway to completion. Mack helped me whip the egg whites into stiff peaks while I melted the semi-sweet baking chocolate and butter over a double boiler. Unfortunately, a lack of instruction reading on my part meant that we ended up folding the chocolate mixture into the whites, instead of the other way around, though it didn’t result in a too-deflated cake at the end.

For whatever reason, the cake took more than double the recommended time in the oven, but seemed to turn out okay. Overall, it didn't provide me with the Culina reminiscence I was looking for, but was a sweet treat that tasted like a cross between a chocolate cake and a brownie. The whipped cream provided some needed coolness, but I think this cake would work best chopped into pieces to top a scoop of vanilla ice cream or a sundae.

Flourless Chocolate Cake

The potluck spread (we look like a fairly healthy bunch, don't we?)

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Monday, April 28, 2008

Edmonton Rediscovered

I feel like most of my pro-Edmonton posts will have a “Yes, but” subtext to them, as it is sometimes difficult to see the silver lining in a city that so pales in comparison with the urban Meccas of London and New York. Still, while it is inevitable to grow accustomed, and in many cases, tired, of one’s place of residence, it doesn’t mean what’s old cannot become new again, or at least rediscovered.

After my visits last year to the immensely walkable cities mentioned above, I have been wracking my brain to think of ways to explore Edmonton’s charm preferably on foot, in a season outside of the various and sundry summer festivals.

So here are a few of my half-day suggestions, either for yourself, or tourists that you hope will venture beyond West Edmonton Mall:

  • Legislature + Garneau: for a taste of history, the Legislature offers free year-round tours, with special mention always paid to the famous acoustic spot in the building. The Interpretive Centre is also worth a quick by for a silly photo-op great for kids (and the kid in all of us, of course). The grounds themselves should be taken in on their own right, and although lush in the warmer months, it’s worth a tranquil stroll or skate across the weather-permitting pond. Stop at Constable Ezio Farone Park across the way if another serene moment is needed. Walk across the historic High Level Bridge (the streetcar begins operation in May) to really appreciate beauty of the river valley, sparkling at dusk. Once across the bridge, a number of independent-minded eateries provide delicious incentives to relax and refuel: DaCapo Café, High Level Diner, Sugar Bowl, and Upper Crust.

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  • Royal Alberta Museum + grounds: the very charming Vi’s for Pies can make for a great start to the day, especially when learning is to follow on the menu. On weekends, the Royal Alberta Museum charges half price admission to those entering before 11am, or if preferred, stop by the Government House for a free tour of the building. Like the Legislature, the grounds surrounding the Museum are worth a gander, as well as the swanky residential homes in the area.

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  • High Street + Edmonton Film Society: start off with some art, with a number of galleries that participate in the Gallery Walk, free to peruse. 124 Street, often labelled a “more upscale Whyte Avenue”, the High Street area is also known for its chic boutiques and unique dining options. Check out cute clothing retailers Ginger and Red Ribbon, stationer Notables, kitchen supply haven Call the Kettle Black, and tea shop Acquired Taste. For the foodies, Chocolaterie Bernard Callebaut is on the block, as is the most divine gelato in the city in my opinion, Bueno Gelato, and the notable eateries Urban Diner, Violino, and Matahari. To end off the evening (if this happens to be a Monday), consider joining the Edmonton Film Society for a movie. The Royal Alberta Museum Theatre serves as the current screening location, showcasing classic films that should not be forgotten. The showings are bereft of popcorn, but with a loyal audience that bursts into gasps, laughs, and spontaneous applause, it’s definitely more fun than the average apathetic group.

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  • Old Strathcona: start off with brunch or lunch, depending on the day, at Café Mosaics, New York Bagel Café, or Murrieta's. If it’s a Saturday, head to the always-festive Farmer’s Market for live entertainment, bustling crowds, and organic, locally-produced wares. A pay-what-you-can matinee over at the Varscona Theatre is a possibility on a Saturday, but so is an early screening at the historic Princess Theatre. Afterwards, you may still have a bit of time to do some shopping - affordable jewelry at the Plaid Giraffe, something vintage from the Junque Cellar, or a unique gift item from the Tin Box? To round off the afternoon, why not stop by the giant Stanley Cup in the parking lot of United Cycle and reminisce over what could have been?

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Random Notes

Weekends really are for blogging!

  • A new tea shop is now open in Edmonton: Felicitea Tea Lounge (15047 Stony Plain Road) serves all kinds of tea, both hot and cold, including bubble tea.
  • The Globe thinks that Vancouver has replaced Toronto as the new culinary capital of Canada.
  • Teatro La Quindicina will be back on May 1st with their first show of the season, a double billing of What Gives? and the brand new Revenge of the South Sea Bubble.
  • Broadway Across Canada released their 2008-2009 season recently, which includes Spamalot, Hairspray, and Annie. After the sound debacle at The Producers last year, I am hesitant to risk being disappointed again.
  • House is finally back tomorrow in its new time slot!
  • World Malaria Day was on Friday, April 25. Take a look at a striking photo slide show on the Globe & Mail website of images captured by children and youth in Liberia and Rwanda. Image #13 is incredibly haunting.
  • After three days of blizzard-like conditions this week, I am happy that the weather is finally cooperating. Because of the snow, I was particularly amused by this sign:

Springtime in Edmonton

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The Cooking Chronicles: Chocolate Chip Pancakes

Bisquick is a life-saver.

For the second time this weekend, Mack and I turned to the dry mix to simplify a meal, this time using the off-the-box recipe for pancakes, supplementing them with a handful of chocolate chips. Mack finished his off with some sliced bananas and syrup.

Not difficult or a cooking accomplishment, Bisquick pancakes are still a great way to start off a morning!

Chocolate Chip Pancakes (with bananas!)

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The Cooking Chroincles: Better Butter Chicken

For Jeanie and Chris's housewarming/Jeanie's birthday party, Mack and I made Better Butter Chicken, an Indian favorite from Eat, Shrink and Be Merry. I had helped with this recipe at May's house last year, but for some reason, couldn't really remember the steps involved.

I wasn't sure if using a rotisserie chicken (as opposed to cooking raw chicken) would result in dry-tasting meat, but actually, it turned out fine. Mack did a great job de-boning the bird, flaking off large chunks of meat, while I prepped the ingredients for the base. We followed the instructions closely, with the exception of adding an entire ~750mL can of diced tomatoes. To Mack's surprise, between the two of us, we were able to pull this recipe together in just over a half an hour.

While some of the guests complained that the dish wasn't spicy enough, I personally prefer a milder version of butter chicken. Of course, with the ease of the recipe as a whole, it wouldn't be difficult to incorporate chilies or more chili powder into the sauce to taste.

Thanks for inviting us to your house, Jeanie (and Chris)! And happy birthday!

Better Butter Chicken

In the kitchen

Andrea & Gord

Playing "Rock Band"

Watching "Rock Band"

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Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Cooking Chronicles: Savoury Waffles

Inspired by a food trend as reported in Cosmopolitan (yes, Cosmo), Mack and I decided to make Savoury Waffles for dinner.

Given that it was Friday and we were both lazy, we resorted to using Bisquick to make the waffle base. It was the first time either of us had used a waffle iron, so it took a bit of trial and error for us to know how much batter was needed for the "perfect" sized waffle (not too thin, etc.).

Once the waffles were done, we topped them with shredded turkey breast, sliced white mushrooms, and a generous handful of medium cheddar, and placed them under the broiler to melt the cheese. Five minutes later, the "pizza waffles", as Mack called them, were done.

I chose to garnish mine with a bit of green onion, which provided a nice sharp bite, but really, any food item with that amount of cheese would taste satisfactory. Mack wanted to know how we might make the waffle portion taste less like a breakfast dish for next time, but I wasn't sure.

The savoury waffles weren't bad for a quick dinner fix, but they definitely weren't the picture of healthy that we should have been going for.

Savoury Waffles with turkey, mushrooms, cheese and green onion

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Healthy Eats: Cafe Mosaics

I met Amanda for lunch at Cafe Mosaics (10844 82 Avenue) on Friday, just before our intention to browse the shops on Whyte Avenue.

I had only been to the Cafe once before, less than a year ago for dinner. I remembered it to be charming, with decent service and solid entree options. Though our main reason for choosing Cafe Mosaics that day was to use the 2-for-1 coupon I had, I thought it would be a good opportunity to giver their lunch menu a try as well.

Arriving at about a quarter after 1pm was a bad idea - with no tables and no real room to stand by the door, perhaps we should have planned for a later meeting time. At any rate, I waited patiently to no avail for one of the two waiters to acknowledge my existence, and perhaps give me an estimate on the time for a table. I ended up having to approach them at the counter myself. Thankfully, things went a lot better after I sat down.

With vegetarian and vegan takes on sandwiches, soups, and salads, Amanda and I were "forced" to eat healthy. I was impressed that the sandwiches came with a choice of one of five sides, including soup, house/Caesar salad, chips and salsa/hummus, hashbrowns, or rice. She squirmed a bit with her order, but decided to take a risk on the Tofu Clubhouse ($10.95) with its thinly sliced grilled tofu, lettuce, onion, tomato, cucumber and cheddar, and a Caesar salad. I decided on the Grilled Mozza Pita ($10.95), with tomato, mozza, spinach and onion and a side of their daily soup.

Our plates arrived hot not too long after we ordered - no surprise since the restaurant was emptying out by that time. Amanda said that she barely registered the tofu in her sandwich, but that her salad was a little overdrenched with dressing. My pita was a great combination of fresh vegetables, with a generous amount of cheese binding the filling together, and best of all - would be an easy dish to duplicate at home.

Though we were left wondering if every table except ours was given a complimentary slice of chocolate cake, we couldn't argue against the value of an $11.50 (excluding tip) lunch for two.

Interior (I love the bread clock!)


Tofu Clubhouse with Cesar Salad

Grilled Mozza Pita with Vegan French Onion Soup

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"Puppetry of the Penis"

Thanks to Vue Weekly, Annie and I got to see a show on Thursday night at the Winspear that has travelled the world over: Puppetry of the Penis.

Given that the tickets were free, I didn't expect that the seats would be so close - orchestra right, sixth row back, aisle seats. Looking around, I didn't see the 60- 40 gender split I expected after reading an interview with one of the Aussies who started it all - there were way more women, sprinkled with just a few gentleman that looked like they were trying their very best to blend into the crowd.

The act started off with a very funny comedienne from Hamilton, Ontario, whose name has slipped from my memory. My favorite bit of her act was when she declared that she had wanted to fit into a new dress she purchased by the time of tonight's show. With a flourish, she took off her jacket, revealing her dress, raised her arms, and announced that she had done it, receiving cheers from the audience. When she turned around to get some water to drink, we were treated to the pins barely holding the garment together, with full view of her Paul Frank underwear.

After a rather lengthy intermission, we were finally treated to the main act - Martin and Dan, two young Australian blokes with fairly diluted accents, came out onto the stage each wearing a cape. Energetic, enthusiastic, and of course, not at all shy, the two men used many a term over the course of the evening to describe their exercises - including "penis installations" and "dick tricks". With a camera positioned just below the stage projecting everything onto a screen behind the performers, even those in the upper and dress circles were able to have a good view of the "puppets".

Though I shouldn't have been shocked to see what I did, I can't say I was entirely ready to know that it was possible to stretch, scrunch, bend, fold and twist the male anatomy into the shapes such as the Eiffel Tower, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and a sea anemone. Annie's favorite was the snail, and well, I don't think I had a favorite. For those curious, the show does sell a do-it-yourself handbook that will show, with step-by-step instructions, how to form 26 penis installations in the comfort of your own home.

It was an interesting experience, I will admit, but one you do have to be entirely prepared for in order to fully enjoy.

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Culinary Q & A with Gord

Occupation: Retired Student. Couch Tester. Human Garbage Disposal.

What did you eat today?

I had to answer this so early in the morning. Unfortunately it's exam season, so my dietary habits are about as poor as they can be. I'm back on the Coffee (a food group unto itself) and while I do normally enjoy a muffin at the bus-stop, I've been working on emptying the fruit bowl before it goes bad. Therefore, I had a mandarin for breakfast. I can tell you with certainty however, that I'm having Garage Burger for dinner. More on that later.

What do you never eat?

If I were starving, I would eat anything. See occupation. However given the nature of modern western gluttony, I have my pick of what I don't eat. After hearing a story about Lobster, it is one of the last things I would ever order. I won't go into detail, because it would ruin Lobster for you as well.

In the interest of being polite, I'll eat my brussel sprouts or kidney beans. It's extremely rare for me to leave something on my plate. However I've become quite accustom to cutting the gristle off my meat and throwing out the toast which I burn too badly.

I guess to that end if something is cooked poorly, I'll let you know by leaving it behind.

Overcooked steak is gross. I don't eat leather.

What is your personal specialty?

In regards to my favourite foods, or what I prefer to cook? If I had to make a meal for a king, it would be my Monolithic French Toast.

Thick sliced raisin bread is the only way to go. Cut the bread in half before you go any further.

Crack your eggs into a square shaped Tupperware container, into which bread naturally fits. A round bowl is not conducive to this exercise.

Adding water or milk to your eggs is a mistake. Adding cinnamon to this step makes more sense than adding it after cooked. Keep in mind that you must strongly whip the eggs and cinnamon, in order for it to mix properly (if at all). Leave the bread pieces in the egg longer than you think you need to. You want the bread permeated all the way through, not just on the surface.

With a single half-piece of bread added to the un-oiled frying pan, slide the second half-piece soft side to crust, such that the pieces smoosh into each other a little. Continue this practice until the pan is filled with 4-5 pieces of bread, all intertwined. Pour some of your egg-batter between any remaining spaces, and wait for it to cook. Once cooked, allow it a little longer. Not burned, but enough that it is nearly dry on top. Once that point is reached, you should have only 1 solid mass to flip.

Because you've left it longer on the first side, cooking on the second side is primarily to allow it to brown. Sliding the Monolithic French Toast off the pan onto a plate is your last step. Personally I suggest butter or margarine WITHOUT syrup. If you didn't leave the bread in the batter long enough, your toast might be dry and still require some syrup.

If you're feeling too skinny, add Mangoes and Whipped cream for a sugary delight.

As for my specialty to devour, Toad in the Hole with beef Gravy is my favourite. Effectively a massive YorkShire pudding with breakfast sausages dispersed throughout, smothered in delicious gravy. Ok, now I'm making myself hungry.

What is your favorite kitchen item?

I'm a sucker for a sharp knife. Without that, any kitchen is an exercise in frustration. However since I don't want to steal Andrea's answer, I'll select the Banana Peeler. The hardest object in a kitchen to find. Confidently ask someone to fetch if for you. Observe their progress,

World ends tomorrow. Describe your last meal.

First and foremost, my plate better be served warm. There are few things worse than food served on a cold plate. Now onto the stuffs.

Prime Rib Roast, rare.
Chunky Mashed Potatoes, gravy.
Large Slice BBQ'ed Vegetables (green beans, red & green peppers, onion) with Sea-salt and Balsamic Vinegar.
Ontario Grown Peaches & Cream Corn on the Cob with a stick of butter for rolling.
Yorkshire Pudding, gravy.
Yorkshire Pudding, gravy.
Yorkshire Pudding, gravy.

All this served on a spaceship bound for somewhere that the world isn't ending.

Where do you eat out most frequently?

The Garage Burger Bar. Proximity to school as well as the fact that my grandfather bought me $100 in gift certificates for Christmas present an excellent opportunity for a broke student to eat out on a bi-weekly basis.

What's the best place to eat in Edmonton?

It really depends on what you're looking for. Unfortunately I find as places get popular, their quality of operation declines for pursuit of the almighty buck.

I was a huge fan of Pita Pit's Chicken Cesar Pita years ago. But as they got popular their quality tanked. Same goes for Funky Pickle's Hotdog & 3 Cheese Pizza.

Chicago Deep Dish pizza (downtown location) has the GREASIEST thickest Pizza you'll ever eat. 1-2 pieces is enough to fill ME. That speaks volumes.

Richard's Donair in Sherwood Park has the best Jumo Donair I've ever had. But those are 'After Bar' food ideas. If you're looking for quality dining or a personable dinner experience you have to broaden the scope.

'A taste of India' in Sherwood Park has an excellent Indian Buffet. I discovered the restaurant only after my sister worked there as a server. They bring their cooks over on temporary visa's from India. The recipes are family secrets and their Nan-bread is the best you'll have.

"Where everybody knows your name" is a typical business practice that keeps me coming back.
Chicken for Lunch and sister restaurant The Lingnan, have had my business for many years for their personal attitude and quality food. The Garage Burger bar is in the same category. The food's good too (Amy's Chicken and Cajun Burger are my staples respectively).

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

While I don't want to sound pompous, we live in a multicultural country where all of the best things on the planet are brought to us directly. I've had Pizza in Italy. I've eaten french bread in France. I think that Canadians have taken the base idea from these foods, and isolated their strongest points. Alternatively, like with the 'Taste of India' example, those international cooks can come to us! While the foreign experience is an interesting change, I do so enjoy my cuisine in Canada. Granted some Canadian is a big place and poutine gets better the further East you move...

However there are international things I've always wanted to try. I refuse to drink Guinness until I'm at a bar in Ireland. That's the only way to know it's the real experience. Belgian beer also makes Canadian beer look rather silly.

I've always wanted to try Rat. I figure there are only a few places in the world where that'll ever happen. I've also heard good things about Kangaroo.

Finally, living in Edmonton it is impossible to come across quality fresh fish. Something about being a land-locked province I guess. Luckily if I want sushi or fish in general, my brother lives in Richmond, walking distance from several fish markets.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Still Looking for that Elusive "Wow": Culina

Shermie’s annual birthday dinner has become so much of a tradition that I end up looking forward to it as if it were my own party. A few years ago, before my own foodie inclinations revealed themselves (because I believe everyone has an inner foodie), she started introducing me to Edmonton’s fine dining purveyors, including the Harvest Room at Hotel MacDonald, Madison’s Grill at the Union Bank Inn, Hardware Grill, and Ruth’s Chris last year.

This year, she chose Culina (9914-89 Avenue), Brad Lazarenko’s brainchild, renowned in Edmonton for its original approach to ethnic comfort food. I had been there for brunch a year ago and was less than blown away. For a restaurant whose reputation precedes it, I can understand how difficult it must be to live up to such high expectations, but then again, what other outlook should be held?

For those wondering where the name of the restaurant comes from, an explanation from Lazarenko himself (taken from a recent interview with Original Fare):

"Culina is Latin for culinary, the art of cooking or the oven to cook in. My father also comes from Kalyna Country which is a region northeast of Edmonton. Kalyna means cranberry in Ukranian. I thought it was fitting."

Walking in to the polished, dark dining area, I do think the space functions better as an evening venue. Seated at a corner table lined with wooden benches on two sides, a combination of the decor and dim lighting allowed for an intimate experience despite the cramped quarters.

A change in the Culina website from one presenting detailed menu information to a frontpage that hasn't been updated since last June and the fact that I didn't "take notes" at last night's sitting means my description of the dishes will be unfortunately spotty. Shermie, May, Gord and myself all ordered arguably the most unique entree - Spring Creek Ranch steak topped with chocolate and blue cheese sauces served with dirty mashed potatoes ($26).

Dark, rich and sweet, the chocolate sauce didn't quite tasted right with the steak - it teased the back of my throat for sure, but didn't compliment the tender strips of meat (pre-sliced into manageable pieces; I wonder why?). An interesting idea, it strikes me as a "trademark" Culina dish that people hear about, come to try, and either return to experiment with the rest of the menu, or not at all. Mack enjoyed his chicken, but in the end, said that there wasn't anything particularly special about it.

Dessert was another thing - the flourless chocolate torte topped with a dollop of dulce de leche was delicious (and for the birthday girl, came with a candle!). Definitely a cake to indulge in, if the note in the menu was true (about the Queen of Tarts being Culina's dessert supplier), I will be sure to look for her booth when the City Centre Market resumes operation in mid-May (or for those more eager, she has a table at the Salisbury Greenhouse Market on Thursdays until May 8).

Still, the wow factor that I hoped for - that intangible moment when you feel that the restaurant really *gets* it - was lacking. But between the ambiance, attentive service, and reasonable, reliable entrees priced in the mid $20-range, I can see why Lazarenko continues his brusque business. Good for groups, casual get togethers, and comfortable catch-ups with friends, I would return to Culina in the future.

Steak and dirty potatoes topped with chocolate and blue cheese sauces

Moroccan Chicken (we needed a tripod for some of these shots)

Flourless Chocolate Torte with Dulce de Leche

Gord & Andrea

Andrea, Shermie, May, me

Happy birthday Shermie!

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Culinary Q & A with Meghan

Occupation: Administrative Assistant

What did you eat today?

For breakfast: I always have cereal for breakfast and I always eat breakfast. I’ve never understood how people could go without eating breakfast. If I don’t eat within the first hour of waking up, I start chewing on my own arm, I’m so hungry. Today I had a bowl of Honey-Nut Cheerios. Usually I have Oatmeal Crisp or Mini-Wheats or actual oatmeal.

For lunch: I brought lunch with me to work today and I usually do unless I forget it at home or if the only thing left in our fridge is frozen peas. Today I have a meager lunch of left-overs: cheesy rice with broccoli mixed in (not home-made but pre-made from the grocery store) and some baked ham (also not home-made but pre-made from the store. I try not to eat too much packaged food because then I start feeling like I’m living after the apocalypse or like I’m living on a spaceship. While both of those scenarios are kind of appealing, sometimes I need to eat a real vegetable.)

For dinner: Sad to say but I will probably try to finish off the ham left-overs. I’ll probably make some pasta to go with it and we have a bag of Caesar salad that I have to use up.

I also try to eat little snacks throughout the day because if I don’t I end up ready to gnaw on own foot by the time lunch or supper rolls around. Usually, I will have some fruit or a granola bar.

What do you never eat?

Hmm…I never eat sushi. I don’t like most seafood and I hate raw fish. I wish I did like sushi because it’s such a trendy, sophisticated thing to like but alas, I am neither trendy nor sophisticated.

What is your personal specialty?

Well, I’m really good at picking up the phone and ordering pizza. I like to cook but I’m not very good at it or very creative so I don’t really have a specialty. I like to try new recipes from allrecipes.com. That is my favorite cooking website (aside from cookingforengineers.com – oh my god…best beef stroganoff recipe ever) because they post user reviews which are always helpful.

What is your favorite kitchen item?

My slow-cooker is my favorite kitchen item because it allows me to be a lazy cook while appearing like I’m not.

World ends tomorrow. Describe your last meal.

Eggs Benedict from The Upper Crust. So. Good.

Where do you eat out most frequently?

I love The Italian Kitchen in the West end. It’s a real hole-in-the-wall place and it’s a little divey but the food is soooo good and cheap. The owner makes the food himself, from scratch so you have to wait a while but it’s always worth it. My favorite dish there is the spinach mushroom crepes in a cream sauce.

If I don’t feel like cooking and I want something fast-foody, I will get a salmon bowl from Tokyo Express.

I don’t eat out too much because it really adds up (money wise and calorie wise) but it’s one of my favorite things to do. I love food and I love going to new restaurants.

What's the best place to eat in Edmonton?

Even though I love to eat out, I really don’t do it enough to know where the best place to eat is. A few of my favorites are:
-The Italian Kitchen (For cheap, delicious Italian food)
-Punjabi Sweets (In my humble opinion, the best Indian food buffet in the city. It too is a bit of a dive but the quality of the food more than makes up for it.)
-The Upper Crust (for breakfast)

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

This is a tough one. I love Italian food so I guess Italy would be the “where” and anything loaded with carb-y goodness would be the “what”. Or possibly some crusty bread and cheese from France. Oh and wine…oh god…the wine.

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Monday, April 21, 2008

Food Notes

Prosciutto Pizza

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An Exercise in Patience: New York Bagel Cafe

On a blustery Sunday, Mack and I foolishly ventured out for brunch. I had been itching to try the New York Bagel Cafe (8430 Gateway Boulevard NW) for some time, and as we had to be in the Old Strathcona/Glenora area later that afternoon anyway, it seemed like a good idea.

We parked on the corner of Whyte Avenue and Gateway Boulevard, meaning we had to trek through at least one block of fresh snow drifts to reach our destination. I had to laugh at the conditions outside, as I was reminded of my only other brush with the Bagel Cafe - several years ago at the coldest and wettest Fringe I had attended to date, I ended up there to use the facilities and buy a few hot drinks to take back to the stage at King Edward Academy. Perhaps the Bagel Cafe is my personal equivalent to a "bad weather" friend.

When we entered the charming restaurant, we found ourselves third in line to wait for one of the twelve or thirteen tables on hand. Thankfully, the wait was just half an hour, albeit not the most comfortable in the cramped quarters of a very small entryway.

The dining area itself was quite cozy, the white, snow-reflecting sunlight streaming in to light up tables and floors made of aged wood, a brick hearth, and brightly painted walls. The centre bar was rather imposing, and though it carved up the dining area to allow for a private corner of tables, it made the space seem less friendly somehow.

For such a small place, the menu was quite extensive - four pages in total. Bagel platters, breakfast plates and their famous eggs benedicts, even picky eaters would be satisfied. Mack decided to give their omelet ($14), customized with mushrooms and smoked meat, while I opted for their Classic Breakfast ($11), which included jumbo eggs, bacon, home fried potatoes, and a toasted buttered bagel.

While we waited for our food, we were a bit worried after seeing a sign tacked up on the wall. It read: "Please understand that good food takes time to prepare...enjoy a drink and the ambiance while you wait." This sentiment was reinforced on the menu: "Please note that modifications to menu items may not be made as it will slow the kitchen down, please respect the menu the way it is." Though the warning did make the lag time expected, neither of us thought our food would take nearly an hour. Moreover, the Cafe doesn't serve drip coffee (cash grab or simply removing the burden of refills from already over-taxed waitresses?) - so coffee drinkers be aware - unless you're prepared to slap down another $4 for a second cup, enjoy your mocha/latte/espresso slowly.

When our plates did arrive (steaming hot, thank goodness), it was evident that presentation was a New York Bagel trademark. The layers of fruit were artfully arranged, the eggs had been garnished with care, and the bagel itself was carefully stacked at an angle. My scrambled eggs were wonderfully creamy, and the smoked meat in Mack's omelet was delicious. The home fries on the other hand, pan fried with what looked like sea salt, was much too salty for both our tastes. And the bagels? Mack's cheese variety was much better than my sesame, but for its namesake food item, they could have been mistaken for those taken from a local grocer.

Between the weather, the wait and the expense, I'm not sure I will be back at NYBC soon. But perhaps on another chilly day in the future, I will find myself at the Cafe door just looking for a warm place to hide out.

Interior (family friendly - lots of high chairs)

A multitude of tabletop condiments

Moca ($3.75) - perfectly sweet, like hot chocolate with just a hint of coffee

Espresso-based House Coffee with steamed milk ($3.25)

Omelet with a cheese bagel, fancy fruit garnish and home fries

Classic Breakfast with a sesame bagel, scrambled eggs, bacon and home fries

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Edmonton Opera: "Falstaff"

When I purchased an Edmonton Opera Explorers’ Club membership last year, my intention was to use it to see Stewart Lemoine’s take on HMS Pinafore and nothing else. After thoroughly enjoying that operetta, to really maximize the membership fee, I thought it best to use my discount towards the last opera of the year, Verdi’s Falstaff.

From the website:

"Based on Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor, it tells the story of an aging-but-still-randy Sir John Falstaff, who is determined to mend his financial situation by seducing two noblewomen simultaneously. However, (as one would suspect), disastrous, convoluted and wildly funny results arise.... what a man won't do for love and money!"

As I mentioned in my review of Pinafore, Falstaff was to function as a better litmus test for me determine whether or not I could enjoy opera. Turns out, not so much.

As Pinafore was in English, I didn't have to rely on the supertitles. For the Italian Falstaff, they were indispensable, and though they helped disseminate the plot and outline the characters, it was exhausting having to dart back and forth from the projected words to the stage antics. As well, I found that I really wasn't invested in any of the characters - a failing of this particular opera, I admit, and not necessarily true of all productions. But still, I couldn't care less about the women's revenge, or the B-plot involving the two young lovers.

To be honest, the most enjoyable part of the evening was the opening five minute video introduction of the 2008/2009 Edmonton Opera season, as presented by Artistic Director Brian Deedrick. He is one excitable man, and for an artform sometimes seen as archaic and irrelevant, I think someone so passionate is exactly the right person to lead the company. When he finally announced the names of each of the three (plus one) shows, Mack and I both could not believe the volume of the collective gasps and sighs emitted by the audience. As someone who would probably do the same upon hearing the new Teatro la Quindicina or Shadow Theatre seasons, I can put myself in an opera-lovers' shoes, but on that night, I couldn't help but laugh. If anything, it is good to know that the "opera community" is alive and well in Edmonton.

Would I go to the opera again? Perhaps, for a well-known knockout like La Boheme. Short of that, my opera days are done.

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More Western than Fusion: Sweet Mango

I had read numerous reviews – all positive – about Sweet Mango (9120 82 Avenue), a new-ish Vietnamese and Thai restaurant located in a south side strip mall. As such, it has been on my list of places to try for some time, and I finally had the opportunity to do so on Saturday.

Driving up to the restaurant, Mack and I were greeted by Sweet Mango’s signage summing up its food philosophy: "A modern Vietnamese fusion dining experience". As with other local fusion experiments, I was curious to see what their interpretation would be, and as it turned out, it was comparable to Matahari – they offer dishes more accurately described as “Westernized Asian” than “fusion”.

At any rate, my first impressions of the eatery were encouraging. Their equivalent of “Please wait to be seated” was a cute “Please be a patient mango”, complete with an image of the fruit. As well, the interior could have easily been a page out of an IKEA catalogue, with moulded white plastic new-age chairs, a clean modern paint scheme, and stalks of decorative bamboo in vases leaning against the back wall. The large tables (uncommonly sized in a food bracket which typically strives for space conservation over comfort) are perfect for those looking for a place to spread out and study, an observation potentially sanctioned by an advertised 10% discount on food for students with a valid ID - not a bad deal from an off-campus, non-pub establishment.

We were promptly seated, and each provided with a leather-bound book encasing beautifully put-together menu pages, complete with full-color pictures and detailed descriptions of dish options. I was impressed with the variety available, which spanned the usual grilled meat/vegetable rice plates, vermicelli bowls and pho, to more interesting choices like crispy tofu fries, Thai salads, and mango prawns. Though we had resolved to “eat healthier” just a day earlier, that ideal went out the window when we decided to order our respective benchmark dishes for Asian eateries – his being Spring Rolls ($3.75/3) and Ginger Beef ($11.95), mine being Pad Thai ($13.95).

We were hoping the wait for our food wouldn’t be too lengthy, as we had a show to attend immediately following dinner, and though there were only two waitresses covering the entire dining room, we didn’t stay idle for too long. Our appetizer arrived promptly, with a dessert-sized plate for each of us. While perfect for our spring rolls, the plate was much too small to comfortably eat our entrees from. But that was a minor complaint – the spring rolls were good – crisp from being freshly fried, and our two main courses were everything we expected them to be - inoffensive, predictable versions of our favorites. The pad thai was indeed spicy (as we had been warned on the menu), so it was fortuitous that we had the sweet morsels of fried beef and stir-fried vegetables as a tapering heat escape.

Though the dishes they offer, in my opinion, is not rightly described as “fusion”, for the quality and the dining room surroundings, Sweet Mango is a welcome addition to the Asian restaurant scene in Edmonton.



Menu page

Spring Rolls

Ginger Beef

Pad Thai

Finished (and yet not impressed)!

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Saturday, April 19, 2008

Reliable Dim Sum: Golden Rice Bowl

On a chilly Saturday morning, I met up with a few of my workmates at Golden Rice Bowl (5365 Gateway Boulevard NW) for Echo's dim sum send-off. I was surprised that a few of my colleagues had never had dim sum before, but then again, there are so many world cuisines I haven't yet experienced that I shouldn't have thought anything of it.

Arriving just after 10am afforded the luxury of immediate seating (try saying that at noon on a weekend), and food carts that didn't have to pass through a mass of tables before reaching us. James remarked that it was "safer" to try new and different food with those already familiar with the dishes - I guess I hadn't really thought of it like that before.

We'll miss you Echo, but you can be sure that we will certainly call you up if we're in your neighbourhood!

Yes, I snuck in a Starbucks coffee...

Chicken feet

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The Cooking Chronicles: Seared Salmon with Balsamic Glaze and Dirty Rice

With a resolve to eat healthier, Mack and I prepared a relatively balanced meal on Friday for dinner.

Seared Salmon with Balsamic Glaze was on the menu, as was an interesting recipe for Dirty Rice, which incorporates coffee as one of the liquid additives. A side salad of Italian greens (packaged, we cheated), completed our plates.

The salmon was quick to prepare - though we had skinless fillets instead of the recommended skin-on type. I delegated the searing job to Mack (a splatter screen would have been a good idea), and though one end of my fish ended up slightly charred due to the thickness differential, the salmon ended up deliciously crispy and cooked through. The balsamic glaze was a wonderfully easy way to punch up the flavour of what would have been a perfectly fine entree on its own, and is something that elevates salmon to a "fancy" dinner party dish.

The rice didn't turn out as well as it could have as I should have left it on the stove for another five minutes or so. Still, the coffee flavour was negligible, and all we could taste was the oregano.

The best thing about our dinner was the fact that it took virtually no time or planning at all. With a well-stocked pantry and the will to continue driving past restaurant and fast food alternatives, a good, healthy meal can be had at home.

Seared Salmon with Balsamic Glaze and Dirty Rice

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Quotable People: Installment Twelve

  • "True friendship is like sound health; the value of it is seldom known until it is lost." – Charles Caleb Cotton

  • "Trouble is a sieve through which we sift our acquaintances. Those too big to pass through are our friends." – Arlene Francis

  • "Friendship makes prosperity more brilliant, and lightens adversity by dividing and sharing it." - Cicero

  • "Thoughtfulness is to a friendship what sunshine is to a garden." – Anonymous

  • "Being with you is like walking on a very clear morning – definitely the sensation of belonging there." – E.B. White


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Food Notes

  • Heads up: Original India on Whyte Ave and 105 Street (opened by the owners of Little India's Maurya Palace) is coming soon (though a little later than the Edmonton Journal had reported).
  • A new Ric's Grill will be opening in the summer on the city's west end (17520 100 Avenue).
  • Edmonton's "newest cocktail venue" (as they are billing themselves), Stir, is now open downtown (10304 111 Street).
  • Vue Weekly has released their ballot for their annual Golden Fork Awards. Answer at least 10 questions to be entered into their draw for $700 worth of restaurant gift certificates!
  • I love the idea of so-called "one trick pony" restaurants. While perhaps better for curious food tourists than locals, it's a neat idea that I hope spreads north soon.
  • A good answer to the question: should one always dress up when going to a semi-formal restaurant?
  • Need a time-killer? A vocabulary game called FreeRice donates 20 grains of rice to the UN World Food Program for each word the player selects correctly.
  • One of my favorite food bloggers, based out of New York, flipped a complete 180 last week and is going back to blogging basics, and is uncertain as to whether or not she will be able to honestly review again, as she's not only become friends with some of the people in the food world, but also because she's "ultimately someone who wants to make other people happy." Having some kind of cover of obscurity is essential, as she notes, and I know that's one of the reasons why I cling to this more anonymous medium of publishing.

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Great for Sharing: OPM Wok 'n Cocktail Bar

Annie and I had tried OPM (1820 99 Street) in South Edmonton Common a few weeks after they opened, and like most restaurants that attempted to ride the fusion wave (L'Azia comes to mind as well), we thought it failed miserably.

OPM was the location of Megan's birthday dinner on Saturday, and a gathering of friends wasn't a bad reason to give the restaurant another go. By the time Mack and I arrived, quite a sizable group were already seated at one of the long, high tables in the lounge.

Mack and I decided to split two dishes. OPM's citrus spin on his perennial favorite, the Orange Ginger Beef ($13.49), was a no-brainer, while our second selection was geared toward my personal craving for a noodle of some sort - the 'Old World' Chow Mein ($12.49), egg noodles tossed with chicken, bbq pork, black beans and vegetables.

For a busy Saturday night (no reservations, of course), and such a large party, I was pleasantly surprised that our food seemed to take no time at all. Though the plates themselves appeared to be small, the servings turned out to be quite filling. I actually ended up enjoying the ginger beef more, complete with a guilty side of those crunchy fried noodles often found atop "Asian"-style salads. In my opinion, the chow mein was too bland, though Mack enjoyed it well enough.

All in all, I thought their tapas menu functioned quite well to encourage sharing among friends, and as long as you aren't expecting "authentic" Asian cuisine, the service and decent food doesn't make for a bad night out.

The rest of the pictures are here.


Jane & Megan

Mack and I

Orange Ginger Beef

'Old World" Chow Mein

Happy birthday Megan!

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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Disappointingly Anti-climactic: NAIT's Student Showcase Buffet

It must have been my Mum's enthusiastic reception of NAIT's Student Showcase Buffet at it's School of Hospitality on a segment of "What's Eating Theo" on CityTV that drove me to make a reservation for us last year. When I called in October to inquire about the next available date, I was told that a table on April 11, a wait of a good six months, was the best we could do. Despite the fact that the buffet is only a once-a-week occurrence during the September-to-April school year, I thought such a lengthy wait list was telling of the quality of the food served. As well, the dishes shown in the CityTV segment included kangaroo chops, something rarely seen in the Edmonton market, leading me to believe that the menu was skewered towards the difficult-to-prepare and the exotic. Turns out I was wrong on both counts.

Mack picked me up from work, but we left a little bit later than we should have. By the time we reached the vicinity of NAIT, it was already past our scheduled 11:15am sitting time. We circled around the various lots and parkades for a good fifteen minutes, and finally found some empty spaces near the HP Centre. Note to anyone heading to the buffet, especially those with later seating times - plan to arrive at least 20 minutes before, as available spaces are incredibly hard to come by.

We entered Ernest's, the School of Hospitality's restaurant, at nearly 20 to noon. We were told that we had to vacate our table promptly at 12:15, which left us with about half an hour to make the most of the buffet, something we weren't told when I initially made the reservation. Thankfully, they had seated my parents already, and both my Mum and Dad had filled up one plate each by that point.

We were offered coffee or tea immediately, though later we saw that other patrons were given an additional option of Coke in glass bottles. Sparing no time, Mack and I picked up plates and headed to the salad bar to start our rounds.

We worked out way through platters of cheese, canapes, grilled vegetables, and even a student carving prosciutto from a slab. Most of the meat, seafood and pasta stations were concentrated in the centre, though two were lone tables on the periphery.

Had I been smarter, I would have picked up more to try on the first go-around, but from what I did get to sample, I liked the Moroccan chicken the best. My Mum and Mack preferred the lamb kabobs, while my Dad enjoyed the prime rib roast. I was disappointed that there was nothing "exotic" or even remotely unique on the menu.

In my opinion, the dessert spread was better than the appetizers and mains. An assortment of chocolates, cakes, and tarts greeted us. The warmed cinnamon buns were my favorite, while Mack quite enjoyed his New York-style cheesecake.

I want to place a caveat on this review, as to be fair, a combination of our late-start, parking challenge, time pressure, and the overwhelming expectations created after a six month wait negatively colored our experience of the buffet overall. For those who arrive early and have the opportunity of a more leisurely meal and are well aware of the hour-long time limit, I'm sure a good time can be had. But because of all of the factors above, I can't honestly say I enjoyed myself that day.

The full set of photos are on Mack's Flickr site.

Mack and I @ "Nest's"

My parents

Dining area

Appetizers (with a fat sculpture)

Appetizers (the duck made out of a green apple is too cute!)

Prosciutto station (the student was having a difficult time carving the tough slab of meat)

Mack's plate

My plate

Part of the dessert section

Beautifully decorated tart

Poached pears

Warm cinammon buns

Mack's dessert plate

My dessert plate

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