Calgary Birthday Round-up: The Big Cheese, Model Milk, Blue Star Diner and Una Pizza

Back in June, well-timed with my birthday, Mack and I took a mini-break in Calgary. I relish any opportunity to further explore their culinary scene (something impossible for visitors to keep up with), but I think we made a fair dent that weekend.

The Big Cheese Poutinerie

The Big Cheese Poutinerie was voted “best poutine” in Calgary in the recent FFWD poll, so we thought it was worth checking out.

The Big Cheese Poutinerie

The Big Cheese Poutinerie

They had quite a few more options than La Poutine, many with an intense variety of topping options, such as mac and cheese, Scottish curry and corn dogs. We ordered the most basic traditional (just curds and gravy) and the Notorious P.I.G. (Carolina pulled pork, double smoked bacon and
Italian sausage).

We brought our poutine boxes to their adorable backyard patio, fenced in and graced with trees, and dug in.

The Big Cheese Poutinerie

Mack loves poutine!

The fries weren’t as crispy as we would have liked, and the Quebec curds didn’t squeak, but the Notorious P.I.G. was still darn tasty (and our favourite of the two). I liked the sweetness from the bacon, which helped offset the rest of the meat.

The Big Cheese Poutinerie

Traditional

The Big Cheese Poutinerie

Notorious P.I.G.

Model Milk

We’d heard some great things about Model Milk, which at the time, seemed like Calgary’s “it” restaurant. As a result, we were really looking forward to try their spin on Southern comfort food.

Model Milk

Look for the cow!

We loved the name upon hearing its origins – Model Milk is an homage to the building’s history as Model Dairy. Some of the plant’s fixtures, such as the viewing window into the bottling area, were preserved in the conversion to a restaurant. As a result, the dining room presents as a gorgeous marriage of the industrial with rustic. The pendant lights above were a lovely touch above our table, but the best seat in the house was undoubtedly at the chef’s table beneath a skylight.

Model Milk

Interior

Model Milk

Chef’s table

Q Water (a water filtration system sold as an alternative to imported bottled water) seems to be all the rage, but the administration of it (i.e., the cost) varies greatly between restaurants, to the point where it’s entirely up to the diner to clarify. I was reminded of this at Model Milk, when we accidentally ended up with pricey Q Water because I didn’t ask when given the choice between “sparkling” and “still”. The tab? $3 a person for water.

Model Milk

Q Water

Their menus had similar numbered iterations to what we were familiar with at Three Boars, and similarly, although there were a few vegetarian options to choose from, the chefs appeared to like all incarnations of meat.

The veal croquette starters ($12) were crispy without being oily, and we loved the texture and the interplay of sweet and spicy in the apple chili glaze.

Model Milk

Veal croquettes

My dish, named pig ($28), was quite the showstopper. Aptly put, tenderloin was wrapped in sausage then wrapped in bacon, and presented so moist and tender that it literally fell to pieces when sliced. Even more a compliment to the chef, it didn’t leave me with a fatty mouth feel. I also enjoyed the refreshing sides of crushed edamame and mint and a pea, celery and apple salad.

Model Milk

Pig

Mack liked his halibut cheeks ($27), prepared with a crunchy potato crust and a creamy tartar sauce. The underlay of potatoes were a bit of a hit and miss – some were well cooked, while others were hard and glassy.

Model Milk

Halibut

Given the menu changes so frequently, I’d be hard pressed to say what’s for dinner at Model Milk today, but based on our experience, I’d love to be surprised on our next visit!

Blue Star Diner

Opened by the same folks behind Dairy Lane, we knew we would be in good hands at Blue Star Diner, a relatively new restaurant in the quaint community of Bridgeland.

The crowd outside told us we were in the right place, and though it was a cold and drizzly out, we didn’t mind the half hour wait, tempered by the offer of hot coffee to sip.

Blue Star Diner

A typical Calgary brunch line-up

Once inside, we marvelled at the charming interior – baby blue paint, crisp glass display shelves, funky chalkboard walls, and perhaps my favourite accent – framed photos of the farmers Dairy Lane sources from.

Blue Star Diner

Interior

Local was definitely all over the menu as well – I really appreciated that the names of producers were highlighted prominently. The newest producer to join the ranks, Broek Farms, was even profiled on a tabletop card.

The servers were friendly and efficient, though Mack’s one small complaint was that the coffee refills petered out after our plates were delivered (his litmus test for brunch service). But in a way, the food more than made up for that minor misstep. My order of stuffed French toast ($12.75) was one of the best brunch dishes I had in recent memory, an irresistible combination of Sylvan Star gruyere, mushrooms, herbs and hollandaise.

Blue Star Diner

Stuffed French toast

Mack’s Broek pulled pork eggs benedict ($15) featured perfectly soft poached eggs, and pork that kicked back and complemented the tangy hollandaise.

Blue Star Diner

Pulled pork eggs benedict

Though I have quite a few diner favourites in Calgary, Blue Star Diner is now hovering near the top. It most definitely deserves another visit the next time we’re in the city.

Una Pizza + Wine

We had enjoyed our meal at Ox & Angela earlier this year, so wanted to try its brother establishment with an equally good reputation, Una Pizza.

At 5:30pm on a Sunday, it was already hopping, and we snagged just about the last of the open seats. We elected to sit outside to drink in the rays, given it was the only sunny break that entire weekend. With its vantage of 17 Avenue however, it also made a great people watching spot.

Una Pizza & Wine

On the patio

Una Pizza is actually open until 1am every day, quite a feat and commitment by the owners to ensure quality late night dining exists in Calgary. The menu offered quite a range of non-pizza dishes, many with a Spanish flair, but we stuck with the pizza side of things.

Una Pizza & Wine

Two-tiered pizza

I chose the mushroom pizza ($20), layered with roasted criminis, smoked mozzarella, truffle oil and arugula. I could taste the time taken to cook down the mushrooms, and the flavour combination was good enough to inspire me to replicate it at home.

Una Pizza & Wine

Mushroom pizza

Mack’s red pizza to my white featured san marzano tomato sauce, prosciutto, provolone and arugula ($18). He noted the crust was much different than Edmonton’s go-to independent pizza joint, Famoso, firmer, crispier and not wood fired. That day, it really hit the spot.

Una Pizza & Wine

Prosciutto pizza

We loved the vibe of Una – fun and vibrant, it reminded us of Tres Carnales. Though the food took a little longer than expected (we had ordered just after the small party next to us, but by the time our food arrived, they had already finished their meal), Una is the type of place where you linger over a glass of wine and catch up. We’ll be back.

A much belated thanks to Mack for a great birthday weekend!

Eat, Drink and Be Early: Toronto Highlights

I’m still amazed at how much we managed to pack in during our short trip to Toronto back in May. It helps, of course, that on one of the days, we were already up and at ‘em by 7 a.m. Vacation? What vacation?

Aunties and Uncles

Mack and I only had one occasion to take in brunch during the trip, and we probably picked the absolute worst day to do so: Mother’s Day. Getting a reservation was near impossible, so after some research, we chose the walk-in only Aunties and Uncles (voted best brunch by Blog T.O. last year).

By the time we arrived, the line was forty-five minutes strong. It is a small restaurant, but in the summer, the patio seating easily doubles the number of tables.

Aunties and Uncles

The Mothers’s Day line

We were fortunate to get an al fresco seat, shaded by a large umbrella. In the early afternoon warmth, it was outdoor dining that wasn’t yet possible in Edmonton at the time.

Aunties and Uncles

Mack on the patio!

The food was well worth the wait. My omelette was chock full of rapini, tomatoes and smoked gouda, and the hash was nicely charred. The sweet and springy sesame-crusted challah was no doubt the start of the plate, however. Mack equally enjoyed his breakfast burger, with a homemade beef patty topped with brie, bacon and (his favourite), a fried egg. It was served on the same challah.

Aunties and Uncles

Omelette

Aunties and Uncles

Breakfast burger

Service was better during the first half of our meal – our coffee refills dropped off after that. Even still, I’d recommend Aunties and Uncles for brunch in Toronto– those lines don’t lie!

Steamwhistle Brewery

Besides Alley Kat’s Charlie Flint, the only other beer consistently in our fridge is Steamwhistle. Made in Toronto, we didn’t have the time last year to visit the brewery, so we made sure to include it on our itinerary on this trip.

Steamwhistle

The Roundhouse

Located in a former locomotive roundhouse, the area surrounding the facility is beautiful, a swath of green in amongst high rises and skyscrapers. There was even a small playground behind the building, situated just beneath one of the country’s busiest roadways. We eventually learned that the City at one point had wanted to demolish the historic building to make way for a convention centre parkade. But Council had the foresight to prevent this, and compromised– the parkade was constructed underground, and the building reconstructed brick by brick over top.

Steamwhistle

Freeway/playground

We managed to get tickets for the day’s final tour. At $10 a pop, the ticket included not one, but two beers, plus a souvenir glass or bottle opener. While waiting for the tour, we explored the event space, which is used often for concerts, weddings, and food truck events. I loved its raw, industrial edge, and while I haven’t been inside the Mercer Tavern yet, I am hoping it has a similar vibe.

Steamwhistle

In the tasting room

I enjoyed hearing about the history of the brewery, including its origins. Steamwhistle was started by three fired guys from the Upper Canada Brewery after it was purchased by Molson (etched on the bottom of each bottle is “3FG”as a reminder of its beginnings).

Steamwhistle

Free sample

Steamwhistle brews all of its beers in this building, with a volume of approximately 81,000 bottles per day (interestingly enough, our tour guide wasn’t able to compare this with the volume produced by a multi-national company).

Steamwhistle

Bottling area

We also learned that they had an actual working steamwhistle, which two lucky tour-goers got to pull. The beer’s namesake relates to the steamwhistle sound they wanted to echo through the streets of downtown Toronto to trumpet quittin’ time.

Steamwhistle

Whee!

It’s always interesting to see how a product gets on the shelves, and it gives us a bit more appreciation for our fridge staple.

Centre Island

Mack and Amanda will tell you that it was a not-so-pleasant wakeup call the day we intended to check out the Toronto Islands. Because Mack had to be back downtown for his early afternoon conference start time, we knew our window of opportunity was short, and hence, planned to catch the first ferry out. Our walk from our hotel to the ferry stop was a frantic one, dodging commuters on busy streets and narrow sidewalks. But, our tale ends well and we reached the dock in time to catch our ferry.

Centre Island

On the ferry

The Toronto Islands, with its limited real estate, vehicle ban, and need for ferry access makes it a bit of an idyllic, if isolated, community. Though we didn’t make it to the residential side of the islands, the number of bike-toting individuals that poured off the first ferry was astonishing. Here we were, in Canada’s largest city, with a sort-of hippie commune within arm’s reach!

Centre Island

Loved this sign!

The blessing of that first ferry was that we were among a very small group. As a result, once on the other side, it felt like we had the island to ourselves.

Centre Island

Mack also particularly enjoyed the city’s skyline as viewed from the Toronto Islands

The downside of visiting in May instead of June through September, however, is that many of the attractions, including the amusement park, were closed. Still, wandering the serene and lush, dew-sprinkled grounds were an attraction enough.

Centre Island

Centre Island

We did wander over to the beach on the other side, but still early, the mist and fog wouldn’t have made it an ideal time to spend on the sand or in the water.

We were also amazed at the amount of “wildlife” present all around Centre Island, from aggressive sparrows to fearless ducks, graceful swans and innumerable geese. And let’s not forget Amanda’s favourite – snakes!

Centre Island

Geese

Centre Island

Amanda’s pet

Even the inanimate animals were fun, the highlight found in Franklin’s Garden.

Centre Island

Mack confronts Franklin

Centre Island

Amanda found a better pet

Toting a picnic basket and swim gear, visiting Centre Island could easily take up an entire day – children in tow or not. The few hours we spent were good enough for us though, especially since our wait for the return ferry saw at least a hundred people pile off – and we weren’t in an island sharing mood.

Guu

Guu came to us recommended by a random Toronto blog I came across. Edmonton is bereft of izakayas, and friends of mine who have lived in Japan constantly bemoan this fact. And while I don’t eat sushi, cooked Japanese tapas are right up my alley, so I was curious to see what a Japanese pub was all about.

That said, I wasn’t expecting the raucous welcome that we received. Anytime a guest entered, all staff turned to the door with a loud greeting of welcome. Similarly, anytime a guest was leaving the establishment, hollers of goodbye and thank you travelled with them. It took us a while to get used to the noise, but there is no doubt it creates a very spirited, joyful atmosphere. Mack commented that it really drew attention to how many parties come and go in a given night.

Guu

Mack and Amanda at Guu

The interior was made up of low wooden tables and stools, warmed by Edison bulbs and a bustling open kitchen (flames were seen on more than one occasion).

Guu

Interior

The sharing menu is perfect for large groups, and was great for first timers like us, as it gave us the chance to sample numerous dishes. Our server recommended seven dishes for a three top. The standouts included the sweet and spicy fried calamari and pan-fried pork cheek.

Guu

Sweet and spicy fried calamari

Guu

Pan-fried pork cheek

I expected the okonomiyaki to be crispier and less wobbly, and the agedashi tofu to have had a firmer exterior, though the dashi broth was great.

Guu

Okonomiyaki

Guu

Agedashi tofu

Service was brisk, but matched the pace of the restaurant. I could definitely see myself returning on future visits, though it is the sort of place I would love to see in Edmonton. With the runaway success of Three Boars, other true small plates-focused eateries should be in the works. I think Edmonton is ready.

Road Trip: Calgary Eats

Though we would have preferred to have had every meal from a food truck, that just wasn’t possible with so many vendors out of commission over the weekend. So we filled in the blanks with restaurants, which didn’t turn out so bad at all either.

Blink

Though we had good intentions to walk over to 17th Avenue for dinner, we succumbed to our lethargic mood and decided to choose a restaurant near our hotel (the Le Germain, our new Calgary favourite). We wandered Stephen Avenue, and decided to revisit Blink.

The last time we dined at Blink was three years ago, for a Dine Out Week prix fixe menu. I had been impressed by the service and the interior (I’m a sucker for exposed brick!), while the food was a mixed bag. Still, they had the most enticing menu on our walkabout, and it was a good opportunity to dine at the same place again.

Blink

Interior

Mack and I chose to share four appetizers and sides, something our server was clearly not accustomed to. But it worked out well, as all four dishes arrived simultaneously, so we could graze as we pleased. Our server was also very attentive – I don’t think my water glass ever reached half empty before being refilled.

The pork belly and roasted scallops ($14.50) were sensational. It was easily the best pork belly I’ve had in some time – the fat didn’t just melt, it burst, dissolving into a silky swathe for the tender meat beneath.

Blink

Pork belly and roasted scallops

It was great to see several tomato dishes on the menu, celebrating the best of what the late summer season had to offer. We would have easily eaten a bowl full of the roasted tomatoes that topped the tart ($12), but we were just happy that the vegetables (accented with a basil puree) were the star of the dish. The tart itself was thin and buttery, and complemented the tomatoes instead of overwhelming them.

Blink

Tomato tart

I had been wowed by the puree of squash varietals that I had tried previously, and was hoping for a similar impression from the roasted tomato soup ($12.50). It was good, but I would have preferred a touch more sweetness to balance the tartness.

Blink

Roasted tomato soup

The macaroni and cheese ($8.50) was the only real dud of our quartet. No question a generous hand dealt the great melting cheese that encased the crevasses of each noodle, but the cheese itself tasted flat and flavourless.

Our second experience at Blink would be enough to bring me back again. There’s something intimate about the restaurant, low-lit and understated. And with a deft kitchen in the back and stellar service up front, I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending it to others.

Red’s Diner

Maybe we just need to visit Calgary more often, but I find there’s always a new diner to try when we get there. This time, it was Red’s Diner, just down the street from Central Memorial Park.

Red's Diner

Red’s Diner

When we arrived, there was already a cluster of patrons on the sidewalk waiting for tables. But we were told the wait time was just fifteen minutes, so we stuck around. And unlike at other diners, the estimate wasn’t deceiving – we actually did get seats after fifteen minutes!

Red's Diner

Loved the “retro” coffee mugs

We sat at the counter (where there were purse hooks underneath in front of each stool – so thoughtful), and as a result, had a front row seat to the kitchen. This kitchen put up empty plates on the window, and filled them accordingly – an orange twirl to start, then some bacon, toast, then eggs…ding! Order up!

Red's Diner

The view from the counter

I ordered Red’s big breakfast ($12.99), which definitely lived up to its name. Three eggs, bacon, sausage, a giant buckwheat pancake and two pieces of toast (sourdough cheese toast – not something often seen as an option); I was defeated. The eggs could have been creamier, but that was my only quibble.

Red's Diner

Red’s big breakfast

Mack, who figured he wouldn’t be getting his perogy fix via food truck, decided on the Prairie breakfast plate ($13.99). It was also quite the hearty breakfast, with homemade perogies, kielbasa, two eggs, potatoes and toast. Mack thought the potatoes were seasoned really well, and his eggs were perfect.

Red's Diner

Prairie breakfast plate

The kitchen was quick, service was friendly, and Red’s captured that perfect weekend morning atmosphere – bright, bustling and brimming with the simmering aroma of breakfast. We have many diner favourites, but Red’s is now close to the top of that list.

Jelly Modern Doughnuts

A Calgary food trip wouldn’t be complete without a stop at Jelly Modern Doughnuts. We were first introduced to their delectable treats back in June, when Mack picked up a dozen doughnuts on his way home from a conference. Their handmade, creative concoctions are made with local ingredients to boot!

Jelly Modern Doughnuts

Doughnuts!

I love the option of a kid-sized doughnut (available for most of their flavours), which for me, was absolutely the perfect size. The sprinkles were the best part.

Jelly Modern Doughnuts

Yum…

Though Calgary is only a few hours away, it always seems like a world away in terms of food. I’m sure it has something to do with its relative novelty, and feeling like a tourist in the city, but a trip to our southern neighbour is always a fun getaway.

Can You Say Breakfast Poutine?! Wake Bistro

Brunch at Wake Bistro was the perfect way to end our last day in Calgary, given we’d wanted a chance to explore the quaint Kensington neighbourhood anyway.

I’d read about it originally on Andree’s blog, and though she indicates in her post that the place is small, I wasn’t prepared for exactly how small. With 16 seats, plus an additional 4 seats at a narrow bar, Wake on the outset seems built more to house a café rather than a full-service restaurant. But with the line-up we encountered that day, it seems people are willing to wait, but more than that, it seems their imminent plans of expansion can’t come soon enough.

The interior is charming – a very simple green and white space, augmented by lots of natural light. Service was also solid – not exceptional, but good – though the two servers did a great job jumping on vacated tables so diners didn’t have to dawdle any longer than necessary.

Wake Bistro

Interior

The menu, though, is what would bring both Mack and I back again. I normally have a difficult time deciding what to order at brunch, but Wake made that decision excruciating, with an amazing array of dishes, particularly given the size of the restaurant. Vegetarians were well cared for among the options of breakfast sandwiches, burritos, pancakes and French toast.

The dish Mack chose is something I hope Edmonton establishments unabashedly steal. Using common ingredients served at brunch (fried potatoes, bacon, poached eggs, hollandaise), then adding cheese curds, their creation of breakfast poutine ($13.95) was a little bowl of heaven for Mack. Ingenious. His only minor quibble was the need for soft poached eggs (to take advantage of the runny interior), instead of medium poached eggs.

Wake Bistro

Breakfast poutine

The crepes ($10.95) that I ordered were nice and light, served with perfectly crispy potatoes. I  would have preferred slices of ham used instead of cubes (for a better melding of textures), and perhaps a bit more cheese, but overall, it was an enjoyable dish.

Wake Bistro

Ham-stuffed crepes

Wake Bistro was a pleasant place to spend the morning, and one both of us would not hesitate to return to again.

Wake Bistro
207 10 Street NW, Calgary
(403) 264-4425

Day 3 in San Francisco: The Land of Queues

Given that tourism is San Francisco’s number one industry, it’s expected that line-ups are rampant at all major attractions. On day three of our trip however, it was also a theme at most of our dining choices – not surprising given the city’s reputation of good food.

The day started off quite overcast, threatening rain. But nothing would stop us from completing our first mission that day: eating a hearty breakfast. Knowing there was no food service at Alcatraz, I thought it would be best to fill up before heading off to the island, and everything pointed to Mama’s on Washington Square.

The plan was to arrive right when the café opened at 8, but though we hoofed it, we found that a line of a half dozen hungry patrons had already formed outside the restaurant at 8:20am (darn those ‘Friscans and their early starts!).

Mama's on Washington Square

The line-up when we left

The restaurant had an odd set-up that eliminated the need for waiters – it was efficient but cruel. Instead of ordering after being seated, Mama’s is set-up so that diners line up alongside their open kitchen, watching the line cooks at the flat top and the baker at his station. It was hard enough not to salivate, let alone quell hunger pangs.

Mama's on Washington Square

The baker at work

After about a half hour, we made it to the head of the line, placed our order with the cashier, and were led to a cozy table. In no time, after two sips of the disastrously bad coffee (really, the only poor thing about Mama’s) our food was brought to us, piping hot.

Mama's on Washington Square

Western Italian omelette

My Western Italian omelette ($10.50) was packed with roasted tomatoes, mushrooms, cheese and pancetta (which was unfortunately not crispy). The eggs were noticeably fluffy though, and the portion extremely generous. The potatoes were also well-prepared. Mack enjoyed his eggs benedict with roasted tomatoes ($10.50) – difficult not to when it is served with crackly bacon.

Mama's on Washington Square

Eggs benedict

Service was warm (the servers made sure to wish those leaving with a “thank you”, even as they bustled to clean tables and seat other parties. Be sure to check it out if you’re looking for a good brunch in San Francisco!

Then we were off to Pier 33, to hop on a ferry to cruise to the cursed, storied prison. We had pre-purchased tickets on the website, but it turned out on that gloomy day that advanced planning wasn’t necessary.

Though only five minutes away from Fisherman’s Wharf, it seemed like a world away – instead of a carnival atmosphere, it felt muted and bleak (the miserable weather didn’t help much either). Waiting for our turn on the ferry also felt a bit like herding cats, between the barricades, divided line-ups and stern National Park staff.

San Francisco

Bye, mainland!

After a quick but rocky fifteen minute cruise, we were there. Alcatraz is larger than life, immortalized on the silver screen, and with more myths than you can shake a stick at.

Alcatraz

Cell tiers

And yet, Alcatraz held its own during our visit. I think it mostly had to do with the audio tour – voices of former inmates, prison staff and families who lived on the island guiding us through the building, explaining the day-to-day grind, the isolation wards, the insurgent movements. The background noises as each scene was being described – the tinkering in the lunch room, the shouts in the cell blocks – coupled with the physicality of walking through the spaces, really made the history come alive.

Alcatraz

Shower area

Alcatraz

A single cell

Alcatraz

Mack behind bars

Alcatraz

Kitchen (with shadows indicating where sharp objects should go so it was easy to know if something was missing)

The only tickets that had been sold out for weeks were for the night tours. After our day trip, I was glad we didn’t have the chance to visit after dark – I’m certain I wouldn’t have been able to handle the chills.

Alcatraz

Burned out warden’s residence

Alcatraz

Yes, it was that windy

Back on the mainland, Mack was already anticipating our first taste of In-N-Out Burger, the famed west coast fast food chain. There is much to admire about In-N-Out: they pay staff a living wage and they are committed to using only fresh ingredients (never frozen beef, potatoes they peel in-store).

Our order of two combos was speedily prepared (they had separate order and pick-up counters), and cost only moderately more than their quick-serve counterparts ($13). The meal looked appealing, and tasted okay, but I couldn’t see what the hype was about – the burger was on the greasy side, and though Mack liked the fact that you could salt the fries on your own accord, he still preferred McDonald’s fries.

In-N-Out

Our meal

Coit Tower was next on our agenda, another tourist destination within walking distance of Pier 39. Another fairly steep hill meant we almost immediately worked off the grease consumed at lunch, but I didn’t mind it – I loved any opportunity to explore the residential neighbourhoods, fascinated by the lack of space between houses, and the steep garage gradients.

Coit Tower

Coit Tower

Coit Tower stands 210 feet tall. The price of the elevator ride to the top was $5, operated by a young man who joked that he took the vertical route 1264 times a day. Though not the highest structure in the city, it did provide a panoramic view, and perhaps more interestingly, a peek of some of the rooftop luxuries afforded in a city with a mild climate – pools, gardens, patios and the like.

Coit Tower

Downtown SF

Coit Tower

Piers and the Bay Bridge

We also discovered just how small the world is – we ran into another Edmonton couple at the top, who were vacationing in SF as a part of their honeymoon.

Coit Tower

Thanks to Allison for taking this photo!

At the base of the Tower are beautiful murals, depicting various scenes of life. I liked this one:

Coit Tower

Orange picking!

On our way to the Embarcadero, we stumbled across the Filbert Steps. It was one of my favourite discoveries, and to me, more of a must-see than Lombard Street.

Filbert Steps

More green than your eye can see

Filbert Steps

Flowers

It was gorgeous – lush, bursting with flora and fauna, it felt like we were taking a tour of someone’s private garden. Similar to Lombard though, residential houses lined the tiered levels – it still strikes me as peculiar to have a tourist attraction on your doorstep.

Filbert Steps

Tiered garden

Filbert Steps

People live here!

We made our way down the stairs, and to the Ferry Building. We knew we would be back to this hub of produce, food and drink again, but I had wanted to see it on a sans-farmers’ market day.

Most of the shops were near closing, so we didn’t have much time to browse. After picking up a pound of coffee from Blue Bottle, we swung by Cowgirl Creamery and picked up a $20 tourist pack of cheese. It included three varieties and a cheese knife, which we thought would be perfect to take along with us for lunch during our winery tour the next day.

Ferry Building

Cowgirl Creamery

Just before they closed their gates, we ducked into Boccolone for their infamous “meat in a cup” salumi cone ($3.50).

Ferry Building

Salumi cone from Boccolone

For dinner, we had decided upon The Slanted Door, a friend’s recommendation – it is a restaurant known for its modern take on Vietnamese food, and sourcing of local products and ecologically-farmed meat. We didn’t have reservations, but given it was a Tuesday, we didn’t think we’d have any problem getting in. We were wrong.

The dining room was full for the evening, and the lounge was packed. Though seats were available in the lounge, we were told only an abbreviated menu would be available to us there – in order to access the full menu, we’d have to snag a seat at the coveted bar (something that was a bit comical to us, since the bar was literally two steps away). The lounge servers were great though – they took pity on us and offered us tips on how to get seats at the bar – and thankfully, after some hovering, we were successful.

Service was excellent – our bartender/server was friendly and easygoing, and was a touchstone of calm in the frenzied restaurant (over the course of the evening, the lounge became standing room only, with a group of patrons immediately behind us trying to have a conversation over the din).

The Slanted Door

Slanted Door served me the best milk tea I’ve ever had

Our friend had recommended the daikon rice cakes ($12), something I probably wouldn’t have ordered on my own. I’m glad we did – the texture was fantastic, browned and crispy on the outside, with an almost fluffy interior. And I’m not usually a fan of daikon, so props to the chef!

The Slanted Door

Daikon rice cakes with shiitake mushrooms and shallots

The cellophane noodles with green onion and Dungeness crab meat ($18) was portioned well. The noodles were diner friendly, cut short for easy consumption, and the dish as a whole was perfectly seasoned.

The Slanted Door

Cellophane noodles with crab and green onion

I had read much online about the shaking beef ($32), a Vietnamese dish made from marinated filet mignon seared at very high heat. The meat, served with watercress, red onions and lime sauce, had a firm crust, but was nice and tender inside. Though we weren’t sure it was the showstopper it was meant to be, we did enjoy it.

The Slanted Door

Shaking beef

It’s worth noting that the receipt had a handy tip breakdown, listing amounts for 15% and 18% gratuities, based on our cheque total.

While Slanted Door was definitely a made-in-San Francisco experience, I’d recommend a reservation for a more leisurely dining experience.

San Francisco

Goodnight, San Francisco!

After dinner, we retired to our hotel, gearing up for a full day of wine.

Day 1 in San Francisco: The Lay of the Land

I had great intentions to blog about San Francisco earlier to the date of our actual trip (September 2010), but procrastination got in the way. Still, better late than never – writing about travels and browsing through old photos always seems like the best way to relive a trip. Perhaps it will make you long for the hills of San Francisco too!

I still don’t remember how the decision of San Francisco as our next vacation destination came about. I had been to SF once before for two days – on the return leg of my family’s journey back to North America after three weeks in the equatorial climes of southeast Asia. It’s safe to say I don’t remember much, save crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and never really acclimatizing to the thirty degree temperature change. Mack, on the other, hand, had never been to San Francisco, in spite of its hub of all things tech (and most notably, is the location of Twitter’s offices).

So in early September, we were off for a ten day trip to San Francisco, a city known for its food, liberal tendencies and a bridge.

At the airport, we hopped on the super-convenient BART train that would lead to a stop about two blocks from our accommodation. Two different people had recommended Hotel Triton to us, part of the Kimpton Hotel chain.

San Francisco

The Triton duckie!

More than any other hotel we’ve ever stayed in, Hotel Triton felt like home. The staff were friendly, always ready with a “welcome back” upon our return,  but mostly, it was the small things – warm chocolate chip cookies available in the lobby every afternoon, free wine every evening, the resident dog Romeo (the concierge’s companion). Or, as a new member of their loyalty program, they offered us a free $10 minibar credit upon check-in.

Kimpton

Our SF home

The location was also hard to beat – right across from the Chinatown Gates, Hotel Triton was five minutes from Union Square and fifteen minutes from the Ferry Building. And whatever we couldn’t walk to, it was just as easy to hop on the BART or grab a bus. I’d recommend Hotel Triton in a heartbeat – and wouldn’t hesitate to stay there again.

Hotel Triton is right in the thick of things

We dropped off our luggage and went in search of lunch. We asked the front desk staff for walking directions to the Heart of the City Farmers’ Market, but they recommended we take the BART instead – apparently, it wasn’t safe to walk (it was the Tenderloin district they were weary of, but we ended up walking through it a few days later anyway, after dark no less, without incident).

Set up outdoors at UN Plaza, the Heart of the City Farmers’ Market wasn’t the largest we would encounter in San Francisco, but it was definitely meant for food shoppers. With no crafts in sight, it was a wonderful introduction to the area’s seasonal fare.

Heart of the City Farmers' Market

Heart of the City Farmers’ Market

Seafood and fresh eggs were available, and though there were a handful of prepared food vendors (spreads, Indian food, kettle corn, baked goods), the focus was undoubtedly on produce. What surprised me was the variety of Asian vegetables available – long beans, Chinese eggplant, bitter melon, among others – and mostly sold without signage.

Heart of the City Farmers' Market

Asian vegetable paradise

Heart of the City Farmers' Market

Such vibrant-coloured eggplant

Heart of the City Farmers' Market

Peaches!

We bought some apples, nectarines and peaches for the week, and some focaccia pizza for lunch.

Heart of the City Farmers' Market

Mack enjoys our light lunch

Satisfied, we wandered over to the neighbouring Hayes Valley, past their grand City Hall building and symphony hall. The shops were lovely to browse, but given that the first pair of shoes I picked up cost over $400, I knew we would only be window shopping.

San Francisco

We’re not in Canada anymore

We did stumble upon Paulette Macarons in the neighbourhood though, completely by accident. Valerie had recommended the place, a charming pastel-coloured boutique offering more than a dozen flavours of macarons.

Paulette

Paulette Macarons (loved the macaron artwork)

We tried the coffee and coconut ($1.60 each). They were Mack’s first macarons – he was surprised that they were not cloyingly sweet. Each had that intense burst of flavour, all contained inside a delicate yet punchy meringue shell, indicative of perfect execution.

Paulette

Mack with his first macaron!

After returning to our hotel to freshen up for dinner, we headed out on foot to our dinner destination. We walked through Chinatown, past what I dubbed “peep show row” on Broadway, and arrived at Fog City Diner, located near Pier 27.

Fog City Diner

Fog City Diner

Fog City Diner was billed, by Chowhound and others, as a “quintessential” San Francisco diner because of their food. But outfitted like a retro train car, with neon lights, cozy booths, and a long wooden bar, we could see how the decor reflected SF as well – appealing to tourists, but not over the top.

Fog City Diner

Interior

Once we got over the hump of being seated (it took about ten minutes or so; the wait staff were being run ragged), it was smooth sailing. We passed over what we probably should have ordered (their cioppino), and instead, opted for what would hit the spot.

The macaroni and cheese ($10) did just that, even if it was singlehandedly the richest we’d ever tried – it was essentially cheese fondue with noodles.

Fog City Diner

Mac ‘n’ cheese

The fish and chips ($17)  were a little less successful, mostly due to the amount of grease still simmering on the freshly fried fish, but I enjoyed the plate nonetheless.

Fog City Diner

Fish and chips

Mack’s 1/2 pound burger ($20 with fixings) was an epic creation, enhanced with mushrooms, applewood smoked bacon and a fried egg, but was similarly greasy. It was interesting, however, that our server asked Mack how he wanted his burger done –  something we never come across in Edmonton.

Fog City Diner

Burger

It was a good way to end our first day in San Francisco, and would be something of a pattern during our trip – filling up on food, then walking it off en route to our hotel. All hail a pedestrian-friendly city!

Recap: Weekend in Calgary

At the end of July, Mack and I decided to escape to Calgary for a weekend, eluding the boxes and avoiding the general chaos that surrounded us after the move. I had good intentions to write a series of posts about all of our epicurious encounters down south, but as you can guess, I put it off. I figured – better late than never, and better something than nothing at all.

Belmont Diner

It’s no secret that Mack and I adore diners. so it wasn’t a surprise that our first stop ended up being a diner.

Belmont Diner in Marda Loop had been on my hit list for some time (operated by the same people behind Galaxie Diner and Myhre’s Deli), and though our driving schedule meant we would reach our destination towards the end of their operating hours on Saturday, their all-day breakfast menu meant we wouldn’t be penalized for our late arrival.

Belmont Diner

Mack loves his Coke

Though we had a decent experience at Belmont, I think our visit to Galaxie Diner coloured our introduction to Belmont. The layout and menu were strikingly similar to Galaxie, and unfortunately, my burger ($10.75) was dry. Thankfully, the bottomless(!) hash browns saved the plate – though they don’t look like much, the slightly crispy potatoes were nicely seasoned with an interesting blend of spices.

Belmont Diner

Burger

Mack had better luck with his hearty “everything” Calgary sandwich ($12.25), which also included a side of bottomless hash browns.

Belmont Diner

Calgary sandwich

While we would eat at Belmont again if we were in the area, based on this meal, we wouldn’t go out of our way to return.

Phil & Sebastian Coffee Company

After lunch, we wandered into the nearby location of Phil & Sebastian. This storefront opened in late November 2009, and based on the excitement exuded by the food folks down south, it was evident Phil & Sebastian has long outgrown their original booth at the Calgary Farmers’ Market.

Phil & Sebastian Coffee

I love their packaging

There is no question is it an absolutely stunning space. With a high ceiling, a clean white and black colour scheme and interesting light fixtures (a huge, Pixar-like arm lamp near the door, and of-the-moment Edison bulbs), I wouldn’t think twice about relocating my mobile office here.

Phil & Sebastian Coffee

Phil & Sebastian at the Marda Loop

Charcut

It’s hard not to salivate when reading about a 35 pound poutine, made with 3kg of cheese curds and fries simmered in duck fat. So although the family-style serving wouldn’t be in the cards for us, I knew a visit to Charcut would be, after reading Julie Van Rosendaal’s post.

Charcut opened in February in the swanky new Hotel Le Germain downtown, the name reflecting the “custom-built rotisserie and charbroiler” (char) and “featured vintage-style slicer and hand-crafted charcuterie eating bar” (cut). We would have loved to sit at the back of the restaurant, facing the kitchen (and the charcuterie cooler, complete with two pig’s heads), but they were unfortunately full that night.

Charcut

How cute is the porcine paper clip?

I wasn’t too fond of the “ranch” touches in what could have been a sleek dining room – a cow mural, wooden beams, and wagon wheel light fixtures featuring mason jars – but I suppose they reminded diners of the rustic nature of the food.

Charcut

Interior

The menu isn’t extensive, but changes every day (old menus are recycled into dish liners), and prominently highlights local producers. We decided to share three dishes, which although seemed doable at the time, filled us up in no time due to their sinfully rich nature.

Charcut

Amuse bouche of turkey terrine and peaches atop a brioche crostini

The lamb croquettes ($15) were delightfully crispy, and were lovingly smoked, which enhanced the flavour of the meat.

Charcut

Lamb croquettes

The share burger, “Charcut style”, consisted of a roasted garlic sausage patty, cheese curds, and a fried egg ($2.5/oz, minimum 9oz). It was interesting to try a sausage patty, dense and fatty as it was, but it was overcooked, making it even more difficult to eat. The brioche and egg, on the other hand, were perfect, the latter fried to a wobbly, yolk-bursting precipice.

Charcut

Share burger

And the poutine ($8)? Heaven. The truffle oil assaulted our senses first, and gave way to fries that had been simmered in duck fat and drenched in a generous amount of cheese curds. The gravy was a bit thin (Mack prefers it thicker), but truly, it’s a dish to fight over.

Charcut

Duck fat poutine

The trend of throwback desserts caught us, as it did at Farm. We couldn’t pass up their animal crackers, accompanied by a garden rhubarb and summer berry crème brulee ($8). The shortbread cookies didn’t taste quite like those boxed crackers of our youth, but went really well with the warmed custard (it was actually warmed through! a pet peeve of mine with restaurant crème brulees). Mack especially liked the softened fruit, which was distributed evenly throughout the custard.

Charcut

Crème brulee

It’s worth noting that the kitchen was efficient, and that service was attentive but respectful. But regardless, need I say it again? Duck fat poutine.

Fiestaval 2010

On our way home from dinner, we stumbled upon Fiestaval, Calgary’s Latin Festival. Olympic Plaza was filled with food and product vendors, and we were able to catch the tail end of their last performer of the day.

Fiestaval

Olympic Plaza

Between the crowd and the energy (people were dancing in the square), it’s hard to deny that Calgary has their own festival culture.

Fiestaval

These pink gophers still crack me up

Over Easy Breakfast

Located just down from Diner Deluxe (one of my Calgary favourites), Over Easy has become a popular breakfast destination.

I loved the chalkboard ceiling just bursting with colour, and the equally fun “We Got Huevos” t-shirts (similar to the cheeky “Line Tamer” shirts at Diner Deluxe). Our server was exceptionally friendly and ensured we were never left wanting for coffee, and was notably excited when we told her it was our first visit to the restaurant.

Overeasy Breafkast

Ceiling

Unlike Belmont Diner, Over Easy has an extensive menu, and one I could see locals returning to many times without compromising variety. And though they got my pancake order wrong, it was a happy mistake – the waffle was sweet, crispy and finished with icing sugar and berries, was like having dessert for breakfast.

Overeasy Breafkast

Fruit-topped waffle

Mack’s blue plate special (actually served on a blue plate), featured a nice amount of fruit, and wonderfully crispy bacon.

Overeasy Breafkast

Blue plate special

We’ll be back!

Sun & Salsa Festival 2010

We ended our weekend at the Kensington Sun & Salsa Festival, which I had added to our itinerary once seeing it on Andree’s blog.

Our introduction to the festival wasn’t pleasant – we couldn’t find parking in the neighbourhood for the life of us. Driving around in circles, it seemed to us that the entire city of Calgary had decided to drive to the event that day (our original plan was to take the C-Train there, but as it was our last stop, it didn’t make too much sense to backtrack on transit). We eventually secured a spot, and wandered into the grounds to see what all the fuss about.

Kensington Sun & Salsa Festival

Kensington

It was actually pretty cool – patrons were invited to sample over 40 salsas put together by local businesses and organizations, with proceeds from the taco chips going to charity.

Kensington Sun & Salsa Festival

The salsa from Naked Leaf was more chutney than salsa – a jasmine-infused peach salsa – but it was creative an unique

Though many stations were out by the time we made our rounds, our favourite was the salsa by Higher Ground – mild, tomato-based, but tasty.

The streets were closed to cars, and were packed shoulder to shoulder with people. A haphazard mix of booths lined the streets (with no method to the madness – non-profits placed at random in between municipal election candidates and private businesses), as well as outdoor food vendors. Though I think the food could have taken some attention away from the salsa (especially when the salsa stations weren’t clearly marked), the salsa didn’t seem to be the focus of the event anyway – instead, the intention was to bring people into the neighbourhood and to promote the area merchants.

Kensington Sun & Salsa Festival

Sun & Salsa

It was a fun event, and really, such a great idea – kudos to the organizers!

Capitol Escape: Jimmy T’s Place

While Mack and I consistently bemoan the lack of diners in Edmonton, we take every opportunity to patronize neighbourhood diners when out of town.

Jimmy T’s Place was such a diner, located just ten minutes away from the hustle and bustle of Capitol Hill, it afforded a temporary refuge from fellow tourists and busyness.

Jimmy T’s Place

A Fodor’s recommendation, like Teaism, I was drawn to this restaurant primarily because of the price, but also for its diner billing. I loved the interior, which appeared as if it hadn’t been retouched since it opened – pipes were exposed, paint was chipped, seat cushions were ripped – and yet, combined with the vaulted metallic ceiling and counter service, it looked like it had been lived-in, endearingly cozy.

Interior

Unfortunately, the food didn’t quite live up to our affection for the décor. Mack’s eggs benedict (they serve all-day breakfast), was serviceable, with a crisp English muffin base, but the potatoes were sorely undercooked. My burger was moist, but really nothing special. Our biggest beef was actually how long we had to wait for the food – we watched as several walk-ins received their orders long before ours had even reached the grill.

Eggs Benedict

Cheeseburger and Fries

I’d recommend Jimmy T’s for the escape, but not for the food.

Jimmy T’s Place
501 E Capitol St SE
Washington, DC
(202) 546-3646

The “Diner Sprint”: Dairy Lane Cafe

As I continue to bemoan the lack of Diners, Drive Ins and Dives-worthy diners in Edmonton, I do my best to try and strike another diner off my list every time I am in Calgary.

Of all places, I discovered Dairy Lane Cafe within the pages of Where Calgary.  After checking out the website, I convinced Mack that it should take the coveted “Sunday morning brunch” slot of our weekend eating adventure.

Dairy Lane exterior

Though we intended on getting to Dairy Lane earlier, by the time we checked out from the hotel and arrived in the West Hillhurst community, it was already 11am. It wasn’t looking good, as there were already a number of people hovered around the door outside. To make the wait more bearable, however, Dairy Lane (like Diner Deluxe) offers hot coffee to patient patrons.

A sign told us to head on in to report the size of our party, and when we did, we were greeted by a friendly server who gently broke it to us that the wait was around forty-five minutes. Having been used to such demand, we had our information taken, including our phone number. He promised to call when a table was ready (long distance, mind you!) and said that we would have five minutes to claim it. We assured him that we wouldn’t wander far.

Hillhurst is a neighbourhood adjacent to Kensington, so we figured a leisurely stroll to work up our appetite was in order. We planned a twenty-minute walk each way, and after peering in the windows of Janice Beaton Fine Cheese (it wouldn’t open until noon that day, unfortunately), we turned around to head back.

At 11:30, we were still a number of blocks from our destination when Mack’s cell phone rang – our table was ready! In what will now be called the “diner sprint”, we ran just about the rest of the distance back to ensure our table wouldn’t be lost. Thankfully, we made it, so our unexpected exercise wasn’t in vain.

The interior of the cafe was tiny – only 22 seats, but so charming. Cheerful yellow walls reflected the optimistic spring conditions outside, and black and white prints reminded patrons of the diner’s 1950s roots. Dairy Lane is proudly powered by 100% carbon-free energy, and 5% of their sales are donated to the Highbanks Society, an organization committed to assisting young single parent families. Talk about a diner with a conscience.

Interior

I couldn’t resist the Swiss and Bacon Stuffed French Toast ($10.95), while Mack chose the All-In Three Egg Omelette ($12.95), with veggies, bacon, ham, Spolumbo’s sausage and cheese. Of course, we topped our order off with coffee, which was consistently being refilled to a standard that Mack approved of.

Though we imagined the kitchen to be fairly small (sized-appropriate to the dining room), we didn’t have to wait long for our plates. A supersized container of maple syrup was provided to me, which Mack was more excited about than I was. The swiss had been sprinkled with a heavy hand, and combined with the slightly salty back bacon, the light and eggy French toast, and a touch of syrupy-sweetness, I was in brunch heaven. If I don’t make it back to Calgary some time soon, I may have to learn to duplicate their recipe at home.

Savoury Stuffed French Toast with home-cut hashbrowns

Mack liked his omelette just fine, though he said it wasn’t the best he’d ever had (Galaxie Diner still tops his list). He did say that it was thicker than he expected, and the kitchen definitely didn’t scrimp on the ingredients.

All-In Omelette with home-cut hashbrowns and toast

Dairy Lane is a great diner with great intentions. I’ll be back.

Dairy Lane Cafe
319 19 Street NW
(403) 283-2497
Monday-Friday 7am-3pm, Weekends and Holidays 8am-3pm

An Old Favourite: Urban Diner

After opening the fridge and exploring the pantry in Mack’s apartment, I realized we wouldn’t be able to put together a coherent meal beyond Kraft Dinner. We opted instead for a late lunch at the nearby Urban Diner (12427 102 Avenue). I’ve written positively about their brunch and their dinner selections before, but it has been a while since either of us had been to the restaurant.

Though it was cloudy outside, there was still enough natural light floating in to make the space bright and conducive to the mood generated by the groovy 70s music being played. We looked through our options, and both decided on sandwiches – Mack the Monte Cristo (three layers, egg-dipped, turkey, ham, swiss) and I the Club (roasted turkey, bacon, tomatoes, cranberry thyme chutney, roasted garlic aioli and sharp cheddar), both priced at $11.95. Mack opted for fries on the side while the weather made soup the natural selection for me.

Mack with their house-brewed iced tea

Our plates took a bit of time to arrive, but it was well worth the wait. The split pea and ham soup was just what I was looking for – warm and hearty, it satisfied my soft spot for lentils. My club sandwich was visually stunning, a spectrum of colours that tasted just as good as it looked. I loved the multigrain bread, and was surprised with their usage of real turkey meat (instead of deli-sliced turkey), but the cranberry chutney pretty much overpowered all other flavours.

Mack’s sandwich was equally good, though quite different. His creation included a generous amount of cheese and meat, and the side of skinny “diner fries” were the perfect crispy accompaniment.

Club Sandwich with ham and split pea soup

Monte Cristo with fries

After a delectable-looking chocolate cake was delivered to the table behind us, I knew I had to have it as well. So though our waiter recommended the Sour Lemon Pie, we chose the 5-Layer Chocolate Torte instead ($9). It turned out to be a tad expensive, as we didn’t know the price beforehand, but it was a nice way to end our meal. Mack, who doesn’t normally enjoy too-sweet desserts, was even able to finish his half of the cake. My only nitpick was that it would have been better at room temperature.

5-Layer Chocolate Torte

Reliable, relaxed, and friendly, Urban Diner is one of my favourite casual restaurants in the city.

Urban Diner
12427 102 Avenue
(780) 488-7274
Tuesday-Friday 11am-9pm, Saturdays 9am-1:30pm (brunch), 2-5pm (lunch), 5-9pm (dinner), Sundays 9am-3pm (brunch only), closed Mondays