Celebrating Valentine’s Day in Edmonton

In case you missed the teaser heard ‘round the world, the theatrical version of Fifty Shades of Grey is being released on Valentine’s Day. I’m sure the movie will garner a lot of holiday tie-in traffic, but if the film isn’t on your short list of plans with your sweetheart, you’re in luck – there are a multitude of activities to choose from in the city!

Go Back In Time

  • All aboard: The Capitol Theatre at Fort Edmonton Park is hosting an amorous adventure called a Valentine’s Train Radio Show with storytelling and musical performances. Shows run February 13-15, 2015.
  • Help celebrate the Hotel Macdonald’s centennial at their Sweetheart-themed Royal Tea & Tour on February 14 & 15, 2015. The dessert menu alone is Valentine’s worthy.
  • For classic films (and prices to match – screenings are just $6), look no further than the Edmonton Film Society. Their winter series, beginning on February 9, 2015, focuses on comedies.

Head Outside

  • How about some cross-country skiing? The Canadian Birkebeiner takes place February 13-14, 2015 at Cooking Lake, east of Edmonton.
  • If that’s a little too intense, a sweetheart snowshoe on February 13 or 14 might be more up your alley. After a guided walk through the river valley, enjoy hot chocolate and bannock.

Explore Your Senses

  • Winefest Edmonton runs February 13-14, 2015. The all-inclusive event includes hors’d’oeuvres and tastings from over 60 wineries.
  • For a good cause, you can romance your Valentine at an exclusive dinner by Culina inside the Tropical Pyramid at the Muttart Conservatory on February 13, 2015. Tickets for the six tables are being auctioned off, with a portion of proceeds going to the United Way and Mealshare.

Play Some Games

  • Have a low-key (or high stakes, depending on how you play) evening at one of Edmonton’s board game cafes, Table Top Café or the Hexagon.
  • Or head over to Denizen Hall downtown for drinks and some retro arcade games (nothing says love like taking on Shredder together).

Get On Your Feet

  • For those looking for something a bit more active, the Edmonton Paintball Centre is hosting a unique couples paintball event on February 14, 2015, inclusive of gear and a snapshot with your significant other to remember the occasion.
  • The Sugar Swing Dance Club’s Affair of the Heart on February 14 looks like fun, with dance lessons, games and a photo booth.

Get Your Hands Dirty

  • There’s definitely been an increase in the number of Valentine’s Day-themed cooking classes, but why not get on the other side of the kitchen? Gail Hall is offering a Foods from the Heart express cooking tutorial on February 10, 2015, if you’re looking to surprise you sweetie with a homemade meal.
  • NAIT has put together a V-Day-inspired menu for their February 13, 2015 session.
  • Sorrentino’s has an intriguing “Oysters and other aphrodisiacs” date night scheduled for February 13, 2015.

Celebrate Culture

  • The Silver Skate Festival celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, with the milestone of being the longest-running winter festival in Edmonton. Check it out in Hawrelak Park February 13-22, 2015.
  • The annual WildFire Festival takes place February 10-28, 2015, and celebrates the improv talents of junior and senior high school students from all over Alberta.

Cheer On the Home Team

  • Let’s hope, for the city’s sake, that the Edmonton Rush are up to repairing our “City of Champions” reputation this year. They face the Colorado Mammoth on February 15, 2015.

Be a Homebody

If you’re still in need of ideas, check out Linda’s post for even more suggestions. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Ten Alternatives To Valentine’s Day Dinner

It’s been a few years since Mack and I have had dinner out at a restaurant on Valentine’s Day. We’ve never had a great experience, and in general, find that we have better meals on days when the kitchen is more relaxed and the ambiance is a little less forced.

So, given the occasion is less than two weeks away, here are ten alternatives you to consider.

  1. Food and Wine Pairings Jacek Chocolate Couture & Baseline Wines Tasting
    • Instead of wine with dinner, explore how well wines pair with sweets. The Italian Centre is hosting a desserts and drinks pairing at their west end location on February 12, 2014, with tickets priced at $50 for two.
    • For chocoholics, Jacek is repeating their successful chocolate and wine tasting at the Muttart Conservatory on February 22, 2014. End the evening with live music and exclusive tours of the pyramids. Tickets are $60 per person. Mack and I participated in a similar tasting last year.
  2. Get Your Hands Dirty
    • Make a sweet treat for your Valentine at the City Arts Centre on February 11, 2014 at their chocolate making class. Registration is $45 per person.
    • The City Arts Centre has teamed up with Chef David Omar of ZINC to help couples create the ultimate Italian feast on February 13, 2014.
    • Shoot the one you love on Valentine’s Day – with paintballs, that is. The city’s newest facility, the Edmonton Paintball Centre, is the largest indoor range in Alberta. They’re offering pink paintballs, and the option to come as a single or a couple.
  3. Music
    • I’m not sure if tickets are still available, but I love that CKUA is inviting Edmontonians to spend Valentine’s Day with Colleen Brown. Tickets are free, but have to be picked up in advance.
    • The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra has a family-friendly option with their Bugs Bunny at the Symphony II, playing February 15-16, 2014. The original scores of some of your favourite cartoon moments will be played live by the symphony.
  4. Theatre
    • Rapid Fire Theatre’s annual Wildfire Festival, celebrating the improv talent of students from across Alberta, takes place all this month. And you know what they say – we love those who can make us laugh.
    • Three may be a crowd, but never at the info-tainment show Hey Ladies!, taking place at the Roxy on February 7, 2014. Among other segments, the hosts will run a Pseudo Valentine’s Match Game that night.
  5. Take in a Winter Festival
    • Nothing is more romantic than a walk in the park, especially on illuminated winter paths. The Flying Canoe Adventure takes place February 7-8, 2014 in Mill Creek, with storytelling, sleigh rides, and even an outdoor patio.
    • The annual Silver Skate Festival runs February 14-23, 2014. Check out their range of activities, from live performances to Olympic-themed fun, and my personal favourite – fire sculptures.
  6. Explore a Neighbourhood On the Spot Pop-Up
    • Pick up a locally-made gift for your loved one at On the Spot Pop-Up’s Maker’s Faire, manifesting itself for the first time at the Boyle Street Plaza, February 8-9, 2014. The facility is a cornerstone of the neighbourhood’s new direction, and it is wonderful to see it being employed for a variety of uses. Besides vendors, there will be a craft room for kids, and a pop-up coffee shop.
    • The North Edge (made up of Central McDougall and Queen Mary Park) is hosting The Snow Ball on February 20, 2014 at the Prince of Wales Armouries. There will be music, refreshments and of course, ballroom dancing. The event is free.
  7. Find a Valentine
    • The sixth annual Animal Attraction at the Valley Zoo on February 14 and 15, 2014 combines speed dating with the opportunity to learn about animal romances.
  8. Anti-Valentine’s Day
    • The third annual Glitterball, “anti-Valentine’s edition” takes place on February 15, 2014 at Yellowhead Brewery. Expect bellydancing, comedy and burlesque. Tickets are $20 in advance
  9. Get OutsideValentine's Day Disco Skate
    • Try your hand at snowshoeing or cross-country skiing at the Strathcona Wilderness Centre.
    • Last year, Mack and and I headed to City Hall for their Valentine’s Day Disco Skate – free skate rentals and hot chocolate under the pyramid lights. This year, it is taking place on February 16, 2014, as a part of their Sunday Swing ‘n Skate. Live swing music and dance lessons inside, and skating outside!
  10. Stay Inside
    • Two years ago, Mack and I watched IBM’s Watson beat Jeopardy’s human champions on Valentine’s Day. This year, we will be binge watching season 2 of House of Cards on Nextflix, to be released on February 14, 2014. To each their own.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Valentine’s Day Disco Skate

On one of the most commercially-driven days in the year, it was great that the City of Edmonton was offering a free, family-friendly alternative. Their Valentine’s Day Disco Skate was scheduled a bit early, running from 4-7pm, but the time did allow for kids to fit in a visit right after school, and for couples to have dinner following the event.

Valentine's Day Disco Skate

City Hall

Mack and I headed over to City Hall after work. At dusk, the spotlights were getting to be more noticeable, but the disco music was certainly casting a net of attention – pedestrians wanted to see what all the fuss was about!

Valentine's Day Disco Skate

Beautiful night for an outdoor skate

Free skate and helmet rentals were offered, alongside bannock roasting. To add to the festivities, stilt-walkers danced around the rink, and costumed actors roamed the perimeter, handing out red carnations as they went.

Valentine's Day Disco Skate

Mack with our carnation

I am a tenuous skater at best, but Mack was patient with me, and we managed to make it around the rink several times (more than a few children raced circles around us).

Valentine's Day Disco Skate

Look Ma, I’m standing!

It was wonderful to see families, couples and friends enjoying themselves on and off the ice. Given the Winter Strategy would like to see more people taking advantage of the outdoors in the season of snow, I think a few more events like this would definitely be a step towards making that happen! Kudos to the organizers for a wonderful night.

Be Mine in Edmonton: 14 Alternatives to a Valentine’s Day Dinner

When Mack and I first started dating, our approach to Valentine’s Day was pretty traditional – Mack bought me flowers and chocolates, and we went out for dinner. Over the past few years though, we’ve opted to stay in, choosing to save our entertainment dollars on a night not dominated by prix-fixe menus, timed table turnovers, and the air of a perfunctory meal.

That said, many restaurants do still offer a first-rate experience even in such a climate, but given the number of Valentine’s Day alternatives I’ve stumbled upon this year, I think there is a general appetite to shrug off the dinner standard in favour of something a little different. For us, this means a paired wine and chocolate tasting put on by Baseline Wines and Jacek Chocolate Couture the week prior to Valentine’s Day.

So for your planning pleasure (Valentine’s Day is just two weeks away!), here are fourteen alternatives to dinner with your sweetheart. Note, some of the events do take place before or after the big day, but are noted as such:

For the romantics

  • What’s more romantic than a moonlit stroll with your valentine? And since February falls during our winter season, it only makes sense that this stroll would be done on snowshoes. The John Janzen is running this special after-dark event on February 1 and 8, 2013. Participants will look for animal tracks, warm up with apple cider, and enjoy a horse-drawn carriage ride to end the evening! Tickets are $20 each.
  • An inexpensive way to take advantage of our winter wonderland is to make use of one of the City’s many public rinks and skate under the stars. Although the picturesque Victoria Oval is closed to the public on February 14, there are numerous other rinks that will be open. Skate to your heart’s content!
  • Serenade your sweetheart with songs from none other than Irving Berlin. On February 8, 2013, the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra takes on his well-known songbook which features songs like “Cheek to Cheek” and “Falling In Love Is Wonderful”. Tickets from $20.

For the food and wine inclined

  • Feature PyramidI wondered why Baseline and Jacek weren’t offering the wine and chocolate pairing on Valentine’s Day itself, but I soon found out why: they’re booked to lead the same tasting at the Muttart Conservatory on February 14! Tickets are $79 each.
  • Is there a saying that a couple that cooks together, stays together? There must be, given that couple’s cooking classes seem to be all the rage. The Pan Tree in Sherwood Park picks up on this trend, offering up their recipe for romance: a three course dinner featuring mussels, rack of lamb and a chocolate crème brulee. Registration is $75.
  • I know there’s more than a few people out there who would proclaim bacon their valentine if given the opportunity. Shovel & Fork is teaching a class on February 17, 2012 on how you can make your own bacon and other cured meats – why not learn this skill with your sweetie? The buy in is $80 per person.
  • For chocoholics, making your own sweet treats may be more up your alley. Get your hands dirty and learn how to make your own chocolate with the City Arts Centre. Registration is $45 per person.
  • The Freewill Shakespeare Festival is hoping to inspire romance and raise money at their Brunch o’ Love at the Hotel MacDonald on February 10, 2013. Attendees will enjoy an elegant brunch and champagne, and have the opportunity to bid on silent auction items. Tickets are $85.
  • For the Love of Wine, deVine’s stand-up wine tasting on Valentine’s Day highlights several love-themed wines, including Red Lips and Saint Armour. Tickets are $30.
  • The Art Gallery of Alberta has organized a new Valentine’s-themed event called Cold Night, Hot Date. The food alone makes it a worthwhile event (I love the idea of a build-your-own cheeseboard), but with romantic shorts, old world carnival games, and exhibition tours, it sounds like it will be a great night! Tickets are $95 each.

For the cynics

  • The High Street Social Club is organizing an Anti-Valentine’s Day party to take place on February 17, 2013 at the Manor Cafe. Expect a menu where you can literally eat your heart out (beef heart tartare) and be cheeky (cherry cola and chilies with braised beef cheek). Tickets are $55 each.

For the unconventional

  • How about a blind date for your valentine? The Citadel’s popular show Blind Date is back, just in time for February 14! One lucky man in the audience gets pulled on stage for an evening of improvised fun. Tickets from $35.
  • For more improv, Rapid Fire Theatre is hosting its annual Wildfire Festival from February 12 – March 2, 2013. The student improv festival celebrates the talent Alberta has to offer.
  • Spend Valentine’s Day exploring your Star Wars identity at the Telus World of Science. It’s a wonderful exhibition for those who love the films, but also those who appreciate the art of moviemaking.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

The Cooking Chronicles: Sugar Cookies

I remember baking sugar cookies with my Mum when I was younger, my sisters and I delighted by the wide collection of cookie cutters she had assembled (as children, we gravitated towards animal shapes and spelling out our names using alphabet cut-outs). We’d lovingly sprinkle our cookies with coloured sugar, sometimes adding a dollop of icing, and that was that (well, besides consuming the saccharine treats).

Maybe it was my naiveté around how difficult it really was to pull the dough together, or perhaps techniques to ensure the “perfect” sugar cookie have been refined and are now better articulated, but a simple Google search resulted in a barrage of tips of what to do, what not to do, and a list of baking supplies that I would need for this procedure that I did not have. When did a simple sugar cookie become so complicated?

All of this came about in that scramble that always happens the last week before Christmas when I probably took on a little too much. On top of baking for family and a work function, I also wanted to show my appreciation to some of my colleagues with a homemade treat from the kitchen.

Sugar Cookies

Sugar cookies

Mack wryly joked that these cookies were a multi-day project, and in fact, they were, but only because I realized in the end that I didn’t have the chops to follow through with my original plan (and didn’t have enough time to experiment and learn). I made this recipe for sugar cookies, and with a vision of icing and decorating them on the days following. What I didn’t know was that this would require three different types of icing – two consistencies of royal icing for the base (for piping and filling), and another for decorating. I tried my hand with this recipe for piping, but just couldn’t get the consistency right. And with time ticking down, I ended up with a simple frosting recipe not unlike the one I grew up with, and sprinkled the final product with what else? Coloured sugar.

Sugar Cookies

Individually packaged

I know part of the lesson here is that I shouldn’t have assumed I could carry out an ambitious recipe on the eve of Christmas, without attempting anything similar in the months prior. But I think the even bigger lesson is not to mess with tradition, and as long as things are done from the heart, we are being true to the things that are really important this season.

Date Night: The Common and Holiday Lights and the Legislature

When The Common relocated to the larger storefront on 109 Street in the spring, they took advantage of the space by enhancing their food menu. Although it’s unlikely I would frequent The Common in its nightclub incarnation, as a restaurant, I had been wanting to check out the creative dishes put together by Chef Jesse Morrison-Gauthier for some time. Mack and I had dinner there last weekend on a chilly Saturday night.

It wasn’t terribly busy when we arrived, but it did fill up over the course of our meal. The Common is separated into three loosely divided rooms – one anchored with a bar, another with a DJ booth, and the dining space where we were seated. I loved the dining space – well lit, it felt like The Common didn’t have anything to hide. And on the contrary, it illuminated the feminine touches in the crispy black and white room: the wall of gilded frames and leaf-tipped gold light fixtures. It felt intimate, relaxed and sophisticated.

The Common

Interior

Similar to Mercer Tavern, we encountered a drinks menu that was split between vintage and modern cocktails. I tried the Negroni, which probably was better suited for Mack, but fared better with the sweeter blackberry cinnamon mojito.

The Common

Our happy hour

Looking at the menu rife with comforting dishes, it really was difficult to decide – no doubt, we will have to return at least a few times to try all of the items that caught our eye! We ended up sharing the mac & cheese ($8.50). The panko crust was crispy and well seasoned, and I liked the florets of cauliflower buried between noodles.

The Common

Mac & cheese

My chicken & waffles ($17) was a pretty satisfying dish. The chicken was excellent, fried hot, moist, and I loved the sweetness from the blackberry sauce. The waffles could have been a little warmer though, and I thought the goat cheese was unnecessary, and overpowered everything else.

The Common

Chicken & waffles

Mack’s lobster pot pie ($17) was deceiving in size, as by the end, he was struggling to finish the serving. There was a fair amount of lobster, and Mack commented on the depth of seafood flavour in the filling. Mack also loved the side of tomato turkey soup, too cute presented in a mason jar.

The Common

Lobster pot pie

Service was excellent (with a surprisingly good ratio of servers to tables for a restaurant/nightclub), and we felt well taken care of the entire night. With an interesting menu, good execution, and a laid back atmosphere, The Common is another one of downtown’s dining destinations. We will be back!

Afterwards, we grabbed a hot drink from the nearby Starbucks and wandered over to the Legislature grounds. It’s been a holiday tradition for Mack and I over the past few years to take in the beautifully decorated grounds.

Holiday at the Legislature

Holiday at the Legislature

It was a chilly night, so we were grateful that the indoor visitor areas were still open so we could warm up. Mack was a good sport and posted in the Speaker’s chair in the mock government set-up next to the gift shop.

Holiday at the Legislature

Playing the Speaker

On our way home, we made our way through the bedazzled trees once again, losing ourselves in the Christmas music piped through the outdoor speakers. Although the nightly holiday musical performances wrap up on December 23, the lights will be up until early January. Make sure to check them out if you can!

Holiday at the Legislature

The Common
9910 109 Street
(780) 452-7333

Holiday Entertaining with Seasoned Solutions

Those of us who have committed to shifting our grocery spending to support local producers can probably attribute this shift to a number of reasons. It could be reading Michael Pollan’s seminal book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, learning about factory food practices in the wake of the innumerable food safety scares (listeria, salmonella, E.coli, the list goes on), or watching the consequences of industrial farming unfold in Food Inc. For me, one of the memorable moments I can point to is attending Gail Hall’s inaugural Seasoned Solutions market cooking classes back in 2007.

While I wasn’t cooking on a day to day basis at that time, Gail introduced me to many of the producers that I now patronize on a weekly basis at the City Market. With her knowledge and passion, it is no surprise that Gail’s market cooking classes have become  a staple in the local food scene. That said, her philosophy of supporting local producers also perforates her other cooking classes, which include lessons centred around her culinary tours, and those that lend themselves to a particular time of year.

Two weeks ago, Mack and I had the good fortune to be invited to participate in one of Gail’s holiday entertaining classes free of charge. Inspired by some of the prominent food trends in Edmonton this year – namely, ethnic restaurants and food trucks – we would be cooking up a diverse menu of small bites and appetizers that anyone would be proud to serve guests.

The Seasoned Solutions classes take place in Gail and her husband Jon’s loft on 104 Street. Their home in the Cobogo Lofts is gorgeous – I am a sucker for exposed brick, but I also love their open concept plan. Their custom kitchen features a large butcher block island, and with the group of seven gathered around, it felt intimate and just right the right size for an evening of hands-on learning.

Seasoned Solutions Holiday Entertaining Class

Inside Gail and Jon’s loft

Because it would be several hours before we would be sitting down for dinner, Gail started us off with an artisanal cheese plate, featuring Sylvan Star gouda and cheese curds, The Cheesiry’s queso and Fairwinds Farm chevre.

Seasoned Solutions Holiday Entertaining Class

Cheese plate

Gail also whipped up a quick holiday apple juice spritzer, spiked with whiskey. Needless to say, I helped myself to a second glass.

Seasoned Solutions Holiday Entertaining Class

Cheers!

In preparing the recipes for the class, Gail met with the chefs and proprietors of all of the restaurants that inspired the menu, but of course, no one was forthcoming with their full recipes. But Gail, being the professional that she is, was able to piece things together based on some of the information they provided, and, well, numerous taste tests.

Mack and I were convinced that Gail’s recipe for chicken pesto calzones, if not a duplicate of Battista’s, are pretty darn close. Starting with a soft, supple dough that proofed for about an hour, each participant was able to assemble their own calzone, layering homemade marinara sauce, mozzarella cheese, and chicken tossed in an incredibly fragrant basil pesto. It was easily our favourite dish that night.

Seasoned Solutions Holiday Entertaining Class

Gail works the dough

Seasoned Solutions Holiday Entertaining Class

Assembling my calzone

Seasoned Solutions Holiday Entertaining Class

Calzones!

Given all of the components in some of the recipes, it wasn’t a surprise that Gail had to have some elements prepared already to expedite things. One example was cooled risotto, needed for the Corso 32-inspired arancini. As with the calzones, all participants had the opportunity to roll their own arancini, stuffing a cube of fontina within, and then dipping the balls in flour, egg and breadcrumbs. To cook the arancini, Gail shallow fried them – good news for us, as it means we are more likely to recreate them at home!

Seasoned Solutions Holiday Entertaining Class

Frying the arancini

Seasoned Solutions Holiday Entertaining Class

Arancini

The most complicated dish was without a doubt the fish tacos, a take on Tres Carnales’ popular item. While the batter was easy enough to whip together (the secret ingredient being Mexican beer), the tacos also required coleslaw, pico de gallo, an avocado tomatillo lime sauce and warmed corn tortillas. It was great to “deconstruct” the tacos and understand how each of the components are made, but to be honest, I would probably opt to head over to the restaurant for my fill of fish tacos instead of attempting this labour-intensive dish. As expected, the final product was delicious, however, and I could imagine the tacos being the centre of a more casual gathering  at a taco bar assembly station.

Seasoned Solutions Holiday Entertaining Class

Assembling the tacos

Seasoned Solutions Holiday Entertaining Class

Fish tacos

In contrast, the Sofra-inspired goat cheese stuffed apricots were a cinch to put together, with Fairwinds Farm goat cheese piped into apricots. They could be served cold, or sautéed.

Seasoned Solutions Holiday Entertaining Class

Mack practices his piping skills

Seasoned Solutions Holiday Entertaining Class

Goat cheese stuffed apricots

Similarly, the pimento cheese spread was complete in five minutes. Gail, fresh from a tour of Charleston, South Carolina, said the dip was all the rage in the city. After one taste, we could tell why – the combination of goat cheese, pimento, mayo, cheese, Worcestershire, onion powder and paprika was deadly. This is definitely something we will be adding to our entertaining repertoire.

Seasoned Solutions Holiday Entertaining Class

Assembling the pimento cheese spread

After four hours of prep and cooking, we were ready to eat! The spread was pretty amazing, and I think I can say with confidence that everyone felt like they contributed to the dinner.

Seasoned Solutions Holiday Entertaining Class

The spread

Seasoned Solutions Holiday Entertaining Class

At the dinner table

I would definitely recommend Gail’s class – her enthusiasm for food and local producers is unbridled, as is her knowledge. With the small group, it was interactive, and Gail was great at multitasking in answering our questions, providing helpful tips, all while proceeding with the recipes. Mack felt it was the perfect balance between demonstration and hands-on opportunities, and with the detailed recipes we took home, even novel cooks would be able to recreate the dishes.

Although her Holiday Entertaining series has finished for the year, Gail has several classes scheduled for the new year (including market cooking classes starting in May 2013). Check her website for more information. Thanks again to Gail for the opportunity to participate!

Weekend in Calgary: Sushi Club, Zoolights, Vendome Cafe and Devonian Gardens

I had the pleasure of catching up with my friends Annie and Andres in Calgary over the weekend. It was nice getting to spend some time with them and getting to know their new neighbourhood a bit better!

Downtown Calgary

The view from their apartment

Sushi Club

Living in the walkable Kensington, Annie and Andres have the advantage being surrounded by a wealth of amenities, including restaurants serving easily a dozen different ethnic cuisines. They took me to one of their favourites on Saturday night – Sushi Club.

Sushi Club

Interior (with incredible chalk art!)

Non-descript, but extremely popular (given their reservation roster was completely full for the night), the small restaurant seems to pride itself on fresh product and creative rolls. Knowing my aversion to raw seafood, Annie and Andres were gracious enough to set aside their usual order in favour of several platters of cooked rolls. The server was extremely helpful, pointing out their most popular dishes, as well as her personal favourites. She was also great in explaining exactly how many pieces came with each order.

The odd cod roll was my favourite – a take on fish and chips with battered and fried cod and a pickle  encased in seaweed and sushi rice and drizzled with tartar sauce. The cod was hot and freshly fried, and paired with the tart pickle and salty seaweed really did work as a two-bite taste.

Sushi Club

Odd cod

The crunchy calamari jalapeno roll was similar, though also featured the additional kick of heat from the peppers.

Sushi Club

Calamari jalapeño roll

Annie’s favourite of Hawaiian shrimp katsu rolls were served last, likely because they could almost be mistaken as dessert sushi. Topped with crushed pineapple and a coconut cream, they were the sweetest and lightest roll I had ever tried, and were definitely unique.

Sushi Club

Hawaiian shrimp katsu rolls

Obviously, I didn’t try their sashimi, but Annie and Andres can vouch for the quality of the seafood. And based on our overall experience, I wouldn’t hesitate in returning again if I’m back in the neighbourhood.

Zoolights @ the Calgary Zoo

Annie thought it might be fun to be tourists after dinner and visit Zoolights at the Calgary Zoo. Every holiday season, the Zoo transforms into a winter wonderland after dark, lit up with over 1.5 million lights. Adult admission was $10, though because none of us had ever been, we didn’t really know what to expect.

It turned out to remind me very much of a cross between the Alberta Legislature at Christmastime (with holiday music being piped through the grounds), and a walkable Bright Nights, the festival that used to take place at Hawrelak Park in years past.

Although the temperature during the day was above zero, when night fell, the temperatures quickly did as well. Combined with high humidity, it ended up being a rather chilly night. Thankfully, organizers prepared for this, with various fire pits located throughout the walking trails, and some indoor reprieves from the cold. The cafe was also open, so we took advantage of that and picked up some warm drinks to accompany our walk.

Pit stop

Zoolights @ Calgary Zoo

One of the indoor greenhouses (aka warming places)

Most of the displays were grouped by theme. Although I didn’t have my sweetheart with me, “lovers lane” was a favourite, complete with Cinderella and her Prince Charming.

Zoolights @ Calgary Zoo

Annie and Andres in lovers lane

Candyland was also a whimsical attraction, lined with coloured lollipops and candy canes.

Zoolights @ Calgary Zoo

Of course, there were a number of animal-themed displays as well. Some of them were animated, but all of them made great photo opportunities.

Zoolights @ Calgary Zoo

Swinging monkeys

Zoolights @ Calgary Zoo

Pet giraffes

In addition to the light displays were other activities for kids as well – a carnival area, and even Santa’s Village, where children were able to video conference with Santa.

Zoolights @ Calgary Zoo

Top of the evening to you

In all, we were impressed by how expansive the sights were – it was a great way to spend an evening outdoors. It’s really a win-win – patrons get into the holiday spirit, and the Zoo is able to generate more income in the off season. Check it out if you’re in Calgary over the next few months – Zoolights runs until January 5, 2013.

Vendome Cafe

Hoping to find a brunch spot within walking distance of their Kensington home, Annie did some researching and came up with Vendome Cafe, about five minutes away from their place in the neighbourhood of Sunnyside. I’m always up for trying new brunch spots in Calgary, so Andres, Annie and I walked over on Sunday morning.

Upon entry, we found a well-worn, charming cafe, anchored by a wooden counter and towering chalkboard menus. But the quaint surroundings couldn’t make up for the experience as a whole.

We joined the queue (a typical sight for Calgary brunch spots), but were confused by the fact that half the patrons did not have coats on – was this line for ordering or for tables? We had to ask the counter attendant (there was no staff responsible for managing the line), who explained that guests were expected to snag their own table, then line up to order at the counter. When asked why not all people in the line seemed to follow this system, she responded that “They must not have been here before.” A posted sign reading “Please seat yourselves and order at the counter” would have alleviated all of the confusion. It was almost as if they convinced themselves that they were a cafe, when in fact, they were a full-service restaurant. The endemic theme of Vendome expecting patrons to learn the system without guidance continued with the restrooms – they were simply a cluster of unmarked doors.

We put in our order at the counter at 10:30, and no joke, our food did not arrive until 11:30. Most of the parties around us didn’t seem to mind the similar wait, chatting over their morning coffee, but had we known such a delay would be imminent, we would have chosen a different establishment. We did spy a couple who had clearly been here before – as they wisely ordered from the pastry case for a pre-brunch appetizer probably knowing their main meal would take some time.

The food was actually quite well prepared, though nothing would have made up for the lack of service and wait at that point. My open faced sausage and egg sandwich ($9.95) was tasty – the perfectly fried sunny side up eggs dressing up the focaccia, lettuce, tomato and breakfast sausage nicely. Annie and Andres both ordered the blue crab eggs benedict ($14.95), which had quite a kick for a breakfast dish, and again, featured perfectly poached eggs.

Vendome Cafe

Open faced sandwich

Vendome Cafe

Blue crab eggs benedict

The complete indifference to service was something I’ve never before experienced in a city ripe with some great brunch establishments. Given this wealth of fabulous brunch restaurants in Calgary (with Blue Star Diner being at the top of my current list of favourites), I’d be hard pressed to ever return to Vendome without good reason.

Devonian Gardens

Anytime I’ve been in Calgary over the past six months, I’ve tried to keep on top of when the Devonian Gardens was to re-open. It’s been under renovation for the last two years, and given it is such a green oasis in an urban setting, I was keen to see what the refurbished gardens would look like.

Devonian Gardens

I was finally able to check it out this weekend. The koi were still around, delighting children and adults alike.

Devonian Gardens

Koi

But the big change was how open it now was – instead of doors closing off the gardens from the connected mall, the food court just flows right into the gardens. Given the number of visitors that Sunday afternoon, perhaps this integration is helping to remind people that it does exist.

Devonian Gardens

Water feature

The garden is lined with seating, and we were sure on most weekdays would be packed with lunchgoers seeking to enjoy a bit of green on their break.

Devonian Gardens

Love the living wall

Thanks again to Annie and Andres for having me – I’m looking forward to my next visit already!

Shop Local 2012: Favourite Gifts to Give or Get

If you are like Mack, you probably won’t think about holiday shopping until approximately December 22, but if you are like me, you are probably starting to feel that creeping feeling of stress that seems to go hand in hand with this time of the year.

Although I recognize that the holidays are about more than material goods, the reality for most of us is that we want to show our loved ones how much we appreciate them with a thoughtfully-chosen gift.

So in honour of Shop Local First Month, I’ve again compiled some gift recommendations from local personalities. I hope you find their answers to the question below as helpful as I have!

What is your favourite locally-purveyed item to give or get?

Mary Bailey, Publisher of The Tomato

CococoWe are fortunate to have several top-notch chocolateries in Edmonto: Cococo, Sweet Lollapalooza, Chocolate Exquisite, Chocophilia bars, Peter Johner and Jacek. But, if I had to pick only one sweet gift it would be the chocolate-covered cherries by Cococo. The combination of high-quality dark chocolate with spirity syrup surrounding the slightly chewy cherry on the stem is a seasonal favourite. Fresh BC Bing cherries are shipped from the Okanagan in season, then immersed in brandy for about two months. The spiked cherries are dipped in fondant, followed by a coating of Cococo couverture chocolate. During the curing, the brandy dissolves the fondant, leaving the cherry surrounded by sweet and mellow brandy. Delish!

Edmonton-based research and development chef Brad Smoliak has introduced an addictive condiment called Bacon by Brad — a sweet/savoury blend of bacon made from Alberta-raised pork, onions, maple syrup and spices, similar in texture to a jam or marmalade. Slather on a burger, layer puff pastry for a quick and easy hors d’oeuvre, or eat it on your toast. Find it on the deli counter at Save-On Foods, and at kitchenbybrad.ca.

Amy Shostak, Artistic Director of Rapid Fire Theatre

One Christmas, my baba asked for a corn broom to sweep the snow. I searched high and low, and finally found some from the Holden Colony at the Old Strathcona Farmers Market. Their brooms are seriously sturdy, with some old-school charm (not to mention the vendor asked me if I was a witch and needed it to fly away). They also have beautiful deerhide mittens for sale, and I picked some up for my Dad.

I have an awesome hand-dyed bag from Veekee Workshop (artist Victoria Wiercinski) that I found at The Royal Bison Art and Craft Fair. It is practical, yet flashy, and I think any of her hand-dyed objects are beautiful gifts to give and to get.

Ed Fong, owner of deVine Wines and Spirits

Being a person who loves and appreciates food, cooking and wine, I tend to surround myself with people who share the same passion. So, I would gladly give or happily accept gift certificates from the following locally owned businesses:

Tops on my list would be sending someone or dining at Corso 32. Just the thought of sinking my teeth into one of Chef Daniel Costa’s arancini filled with mushrooms, fontina cheese and red cabbage is enough to bring me closer to heaven. Second on my list is a trip to the Red Ox Inn for their decadent pork belly appetizer followed by the bacon wrapped pork loin. Double pork!

For the people on my list looking for cool kitchen supplies, I would give them a chance to check out my friends at Call the Kettle Black. I would send cookbook lovers over to the shelves of Audrey’s Books.

Food would not be the same without bottles of great wine. Hate to blow my own horn, but I’d send all my wine loving friends over to see me at deVine Wines & Spirits. We can help you find some great vino to pair with your special meal, cool beers and premium spirits.

Bruce Bevan, Economic Development Officer with the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation

DeVine'sYou should never give what you wouldn’t be happy to get and you can never go wrong with good food or wine. The Italian Centre in Little Italy is part of my regular Saturday morning shopping routine and the Beemster’s Extra-Aged Gouda is to die for; a great gift to go with port during those cold winter evenings. deVine Wines and Spirits (which is located in my favourite part of Edmonton – 104 Street downtown) is where I purchase my holiday libations and my latest discovery is a Portuguese Sparkling Rosé called Fita Preta “Sexy”; goes great with turkey.

Jeanie Andronyk, Co-organizer of The Royal Bison and metalsmith

I always recommend The Royal Bison for unique gifts (natch) but there are a billion awesome places all around Edmonton. You can never go wrong with music. Listen Records has everything for even the pickiest of music lovers; most of which you can buy on vinyl. Sweets are also a win, so if someone you love has a sweet tooth, buy them some roasted coconut marshmallows from Duchess Bakery. For the minimalist who is not a fan of presents, I recommend going to Padmanadi‘s Vegetarian Restaurant for a delicious I-can’t-even-tell-it’s-not-actually-meat treat!

Graham Hicks, Weekly Dish Columnist for the Edmonton Sun

Christmas drives me a little nuts as I don’t like shopping but like to give useful, meaningful gifts to the special people in my life, but can never think of a useful, meaningful gift to give.

Solution: Buy a bunch of one or two cute little gifties, to which can be attached gift certificates for favourite, locally-owned, community-minded restaurants (I’d send anybody to Tzin, Dadeo’s, Parkallen or New Asian Village).

For cute little gifties in the $10 to $15 range, I head to farmer’s markets for inspiration, or gift shops at public institutions like The Art Gallery of Alberta, Muttart, Royal Alberta Museum or TELUS World of Science.

I’m thinking this year of small bottles of gourmet oils, specialty salts or unusual vinegars – from Evoolution, Italian Centre, high-end canola from Mighty Trio or truffle oil from Mo-Na, Sunterra or Planet Organic. That’s the kind of gift I like to get!

Janis Galloway, Fashion Blogger

One of the best gifts I ever received was a custom-made dress from local designer Bridget Smatlan of Fridget Apparel. It was a truly thoughtful present that allowed me to be included in the process of making something I absolutely cherish today. It wasn’t just an item, it was an experience too. This is great gift idea for the real fashionista in your life and a fabulous way to support local entrepreneurs.

I also love perusing the local craft/artisan markets that are plentiful this time of year. The Royal Bison is my fave and great for finding made-with-love gifts such as the beautiful crocheted scarves of The Pretty Knotty Sweatshoppe, uniquely flavoured treats from Heritage Baked Goods (perfect for the vegan in your life), and the charmingly crafted jewelry and vintage finds of Chaos and the Dark.

Happy Shopping!

Brittney Le Blanc, Capital Ideas Community Champion and all-around superwoman!

When I’m shopping for friends, I really try and embrace the November Shop Local trend! If you need some sassy cards and unique items, look no further than The Artworks, which I’m lucky to be located close to for work. Know someone who likes to display photos, send mail, journal, or more? Notables is the greatest when it comes to stationary. Know someone who likes kitchen supplies? You really can’t go wrong with Call The Kettle Black. Hop across the parking lot to the Tin Box on High Street for two floors of jewellery, funky hats, awesome toys for children and adult children in your life and some great Christmas decor as well! Looking for more knick knacks or home decor? You should cross the street and talk to the ladies at Henry’s Purveyor of Fine Things. Have a geeky friend? Stop by Wizards Comics on 109 Street and talk to Brandon. He can find a comic for anyone. You’ll also find a great selection of board games too! Although, if you have a really big board game fanatic I suggest heading to Mission Fun and Games in St. Albert – as an added bonus, their new location looks like a castle. And if you want to find unique items from local Edmontonians – head to The Carrot on Alberta Avenue. Grab a warm drink and look through the jewelry, crafts, and artistic works – and on November 24th they’re having an Arts Bazaar from 9:30 – 4:30pm. I realize I have listed a lot of places, but if you’re like me there aren’t very many one-stop-shops for your variety of gift-giving needs. Luckily, there’s a whole month left before the holiday arrives.

2012 Christmas on the Square Holiday Light Up

The weather was actually pretty cooperative for Saturday’s Christmas on the Square, with temperatures holding out at a very reasonable –5C. It was a far cry from last year’s event, where the crowd was all dancing to keep warm.

Holiday Light-Up on the Square 2012

Crowds gather

There were several vendors on hand to round out the festivities. It was good to see Big City Sandwich and Eva Sweet, but the biggest line was easily awarded to the mini doughnut trailer (I have to say I consider mini doughnuts a summer food, but given the salivating crowds, perhaps the WinterCity Strategy should specifically name this treat as a method of drawing crowds outdoors).

Holiday Light-Up on the Square 2012

Big City Sandwich

A new addition to the program this year was Booming Tree, a Japanese drumming duo. Although their act was mostly only tangentially related to the holidays (festive lights around the drums can only go so far), I really enjoyed their act. It was a pleasant change from the usual Christmas music.

Holiday Light-Up on the Square 2012

Here’s Santa

Speaking of music, when Mayor Stephen Mandel eventually retires, he should become a stage crooner. He was more than comfortable with the microphone in his hand, belting out a carol to welcome Santa to the city.

Though it has been a few years since they brought out the giant switch that “turns on” the lights on the Christmas tree, I kind of miss that over-the-top kitsch. Still, it’s also nice to be a part of a group to collectively marvel over the lovely displays.

Holiday Light-Up on the Square 2012

And it’s on!

As usual, the fireworks were timed to music, emphasizing style over the quantity of poppers. I’ve said this before many times, but I really wish other fireworks shows took a cue from this production – it is always so much more enjoyable than a seemingly random smattering of sparklers.

Holiday Light-Up on the Square 2012

Fireworks!

The tree will be lit until early January – so even if you missed the light up, you have several weeks to pay it a visit.

Holiday Light-Up on the Square 2012

Christmas is near…

Kudos to the organizers for another great event!