‘Tis the Season at the Hotel Macdonald: Nutcracker Tea and Tour

There are few places in Edmonton that get decked out for the holidays like the Hotel Macdonald. You only need to walk into their lobby to get whisked away in the Christmas spirit – between the bedazzled fifteen foot tree and the twinkly gingerbread rendition of the building, the Hotel Mac does it right.

Hotel Macdonald

Gingerbread Hotel Macdonald

Their holiday season offerings range from special dinners on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, to themed meals like the Dickens buffet (a nineteenth century, English-style lunch) and Nutcracker Tea and Tour. The latter is a festive take on their respected Royal Tea and Tour, featuring a holiday-inspired menu and some other surprises. Mack and I took his Grandma Male for tea on Saturday. We had been meaning to take her for some time – Grandma Male actually worked at the hotel switchboard in the 1950s, and she hadn’t been back to the building since.

Reservations were accepted for 2:30pm in the Harvest Room. Although it wasn’t quite a full house, the families, friends and couples who gathered had all dressed up for the occasion.

Nutcracker Tea & Tour

Grandma Male and Mack

We started off with a glass of sparkling wine, a nice touch for the holidays, and shortly after, were presented with the tea selection. I was anticipating that all of the teas would have been loose, as is traditional, but there was a mix of tea bags and loose teas. Grandma Male and I both chose a nice Buckingham Palace orange pekoe.

Our first treats arrived warm from the oven – classic scones and candied pecan-eggnog scones. They were absolutely delicious, though to be honest, I think I used the scones as a vessel to consume as much Devonshire cream and port cranberry compote as possible.

Nutcracker Tea & Tour

Scones!

The tiered trays contained both savoury and sweet bites. No cucumber sandwiches to be seen, the selection included oven roasted turkey with citrus sage aioli on a mini navette. Our favourite on the savoury side was the applewood smoked cheddar, ham and grainy dijon aioli on an adorable mini bagel.

Nutcracker Tea & Tour

Beautiful presentation

The kitchen did a great job accommodating Mack’s nut allergy, making substitutions when necessary, such as ensuring the white chocolate and pistachio mousse was nowhere to be seen on his tray. While we enjoyed all of the dainty confections, the ginger orange madeleine was the pronounced favourite.

Nutcracker Tea & Tour

Photobombing tea service

The only misstep that afternoon was the fact that we were only told about the timing of the tour about ten minutes prior to its start. Although we weren’t rushed through tea service, it would have been nice to know the flow in advance. Otherwise, the service was impeccable, as is standard at the Hotel Macdonald.

We assembled in the Wedgewood Room for a special performance by some of the dancers from Clara’s Dream. Shumka’s Ukrainian version of The Nutcracker, the preview showcased the music and the energy you would expect from a fusion of dance styles. Clara’s Dream runs December 29-30, 2015 at the Jubilee Auditorium.

Nutcracker Tea & Tour

Dancers from Clara’s Dream

Afterwards, Carlos, a staff of the Hotel Macdonald, led us on a brief tour of the building. This wasn’t my first tour of the Hotel Macdonald, but what I always appreciate is how personal each tour is, coloured by the individual experience of each staff member. In this case, Carlos shared that he had worked as Queen Elizabeth’s butler when she stayed at the Hotel Macdonald back in 2005, commenting on her strong appetite and desire to know how her food was prepared. On this tour, we weren’t able to visit the Queen Elizabeth Suite, as the top two floors of the hotel are currently undergoing renovations, and aren’t set to reopen until April.

Hotel Macdonald

The Empire Ballroom

Carlos also informed us about the Hotel Macdonald’s reputation among the Fairmont properties – although being the second smallest, it hosts the most weddings of all. With as many as six weddings per day in the summer, he jokes to the grooms to ensure they go home with the right bride at the end of the night, and to the brides that in order to have their dream wedding at the castle on the river, that they should book their wedding date and then go out and find the right groom.

Hotel Macdonald

With Grandma Male

The Nutcracker Tea and Tour is a great way to celebrate the holidays. It runs every Saturday and Sunday until December 27, with the only other preview of Clara’s Dream to take place at the December 19 tea. The cost is $49 per person, with reservations recommended. Happy holidays!

The Perfect Match: Credo Coffee and Jacek Chocolate Tasting

It’s great to see when local businesses team up to support one another, whether that’s Dovetail Deli providing shelf space to sell products from Gold Forest Grains and McKernan Food Works, or Remedy Cafe stocking vegan Bloom Cookies at the counter. There is strength in numbers, as awareness is half the battle, and it takes a community to move these independent brands forward.

The tasting organized by Credo Coffee and Jacek Chocolate Couture is another great example of this. When the tickets were released in late summer, I jumped at the excuse to enjoy two of my favourite things. Mack and I had attended a wine and chocolate pairing two years ago at Baseline Wines, and had found it to be a fun and educational experience. And given Mack’s already a fixture at Credo, he didn’t need any additional incentives to come along this time around.

Credo & Jacek Coffee & Chocolate Tasting

Coffee and chocolate

In mid-November, Mack and I bussed over to Credo on 124 Street. We joined a fairly small group, less than two dozen in number, who seemed just as excited for the evening. Chelsea (from Credo) and Jamie (from Jacek) welcomed us and explained that the partnership between the two businesses began in 2010, when Credo became Jacek’s first retail partner. They have collaborated since then, working together to produce The Credo Bar earlier this year, a dark chocolate combined with espresso beans, and then, most recently, to organize a series of tastings.

Credo & Jacek Coffee & Chocolate Tasting

Jamie and Chelsea

The focus of the evening was on “mindful eating” – to deliberately and thoughtfully experience each taste, as opposed to what we’re all guilty of at times – consuming in haste or (for me, with coffee in the mornings) for pure sustenance. For reference, we were provided with copies of the Taster’s Flavour Wheel, which would aid us in articulating the notes detected in coffee and chocolate. Both Chelsea and Jamie emphasized that everyone has a different palate, and as such, can pick up different flavours.

Credo & Jacek Coffee & Chocolate Tasting

Flavour Wheel

We started with tasting three of Credo’s coffees, all roasted by Chicago-based Intelligensia. Intelligensia rotates through several regions of coffee as they become available seasonally, moving from Central America in the spring/summer to Africa in the fall/winter. We started with perhaps my favourite single-origin, the Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, a light and floral roast. We moved to the Itzamna from Guatemala, a coffee grown on the grounds of a former silver mine. The farmers are committed to organic practices, choosing a labour-intensive path of applying clay to the roots of the plants to regulate their temperature. This coffee was definitely much fuller-bodied, with a toasted flavour. Lastly, we sampled the Ethiopian Kurimi, grown by farmers interested only in planting varieties indigenous to the area. Our fellow tasters noted the Kurimi had hints of lychee and jasmine.

Credo & Jacek Coffee & Chocolate Tasting

Ethiopian Yirgacheffe

Onto chocolate, I was happy to learn about Jacek’s new Fabric Collection. Launched on November 13, 2015, it is Jacek’s first foray into bean-to-bar production. In the past, they’ve relied on Valrhona as their chocolate supplier, but now, they have the capacity to sort, roast, winnow and refine cocoa beans at their facility in Sherwood Park. Currently, they are producing three 70% single-origin varieties, all of which we tried that night.

Jacek Fabric Collection

Fabric Collection

The Dominican Republic, refined for seventy two hours, had tropical fruit undertones. I already knew I would enjoy the Venezuela, typically the single-origin I choose, creamy and balanced. The Peru was a surprise – unlike the subtle flavours of the previous two, for us, it had very distinct notes of dried fruit.

The evening cumulated in two pairings. The first was to sample The Credo Bar, made with the Dominican Republic and Black Cat espresso (we were told this iteration was selected from twelve combinations). The flavour profile reminded me of the Mocha Bar that the now-defunct Kerstin’s Chocolates had produced with beans from Transcend Coffee, but instead of the added texture of whole beans, The Credo Bar conches the cocoa and coffee beans together for a smooth finish.

We ended with an unconventional pairing – while I have incidentally enjoyed chocolate alongside tea, it’s not a classic match. Here, we sampled maojian green tea with the single-origin Venezuela, and it worked. Jamie shared that this has been the gateway for staff to consider other unusual pairings, and future tastings may feature more tea than coffee.

Credo & Jacek Coffee & Chocolate Tasting

Coffee cheers!

We enjoyed our first foray into coffee and chocolate tasting, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to others. Jacek and Credo have just added another pairing date on January 15, 2016, so it’s something to consider as a gift this holiday season. Tickets are $40 each.

An Afternoon of Nibbles and Sweets: Cally’s Teas

Cally’s Teas is Grandma Male’s favourite place to purchase tea in the city, but since moving to their expanded digs on Whyte Avenue, they have been able to sell much more than just tea. With a kitchen, Cally’s is now equipped to sell baked goods, and even better, offer a full lunch service, including the option of high tea! Mack, Thom and I took Grandma Male to Cally’s just before Christmas to give their expanded menu a try.

Cally's Teas

Ready for high tea!

The shop itself is charming, shelves brimming with lovely handmade gifts (we spotted Veekee Workshop’s tea towels, for instance), and of course, their show stopping wall of teas. The dining area takes its place at the rear of the shop, anchored by a counter that resembled a wet bar for tea. Because there isn’t a distinct break between the shop and the dining space, we weren’t sure if it would be a bit awkward holding a conversation while those around us browsed for last-minute Christmas gifts, but it turned out we needn’t have worried. With seating comprised of mismatched vintage furniture, it felt a bit like we were having lunch in a friend’s warm and funky kitchen.

Cally's Teas

Tea bar

I will say that it was a bit odd that we weren’t actually given a menu to peruse after we were seated, but instead were asked as we were removing our winter gear which of the two afternoon tea options we wanted to choose. Given this was our first time, we would have appreciated some time to acquaint ourselves with the menu, but perhaps the staff were just cognizant of time and wanted to ensure the kitchen was prepared to expedite our order. Based on the recommendation of the server, we opted for the $25/person high tea option, which added a savoury quiche or bread pudding to round out the small bites and scones offered through the $20/person afternoon tea. Though we did enjoy our experience, it is worth noting that we did think it was a bit on the pricey side, given our bill registered over $100.

We started off the meal by each choosing a tea from the aforementioned tea wall. A server was available to provide guidance, helpful given the overwhelming number of choices. Grandma Male decided on Formosa oolong, while I stuck with a traditional earl grey, and Mack and Thom shared a pot of seasonal egg nog tea.

Cally's Teas

Perusing the “Great Wall of Tea”

As expected, the china at Cally’s is absolutely beautiful, radiant pieces almost too pretty to use. The tiered servers were dainty but functional, a sturdy handle at the top more than capable of supporting the buttery heft at each level.

Cally's Teas

My gorgeous and festive tea cup

As we nibbled our way through the food, we were reminded of how social high tea is, because of the sharing (and passing) of communal trays of small bites.

The homemade crackers with goat cheese were a hit around the table, the mild spread melding nicely with its buttery base. Mack and I aren’t usual fans of cucumber sandwiches, but Cally’s version featured the inclusion of fragrant lemon zest, which added a zip of freshness to the tea staple. The quiche was meant to be a savoury item, but it could have almost passed for dessert – the onions had been caramelized into submission, while the tomato added another layer of sweetness. The pastry was also very well prepared, crispy and flaky.

Cally's Teas

Savoury bites

Without a doubt, the scones were the standout. Oh so buttery and slightly sweet, they were consumed as a dessert, served with jam and whipped cream. We were all plum full by this time, but didn’t let the last few bites of scone go to waste. Mack and I agreed that we would be back for these. The dessert tray also featured some tea-studded shortbread cookies. We packed them up for later, and enjoyed them at home. The tea aroma was noticeable on the nose, but less so on the palate.

Cally's Teas

Sweet bites

Service throughout our meal was quite attentive, though we probably interacted with four different staff/servers that afternoon. In that way it felt a little less formal than high tea services at other establishments in Edmonton, which suited us just fine.

If you’re looking for a different kind of lunch experience, or, just feel like nibbling your way through an afternoon, I’d highly recommend high tea at Cally’s!

Cally’s Teas
10151 Whyte Avenue
(780) 757-8944

Notes on Food

  • Mr. Mike’s Steakhouse & Bar is now open in West Edmonton Mall! Strange I haven’t really seen it mentioned in any of the local papers.
  • Bettina pointed out a unique alternative to flowers and candy – Edible Arrangements! While they may not last as long as a bouquet, they are certainly beautiful to look at. They are on the pricey side, but I’d be open to taking the idea and making up single-stem pineapple/melon flowers myself. They’d be perfect as takeaway gifts to give following a baby shower or spring dinner party.
  • Original Fare has introduced gift cards! Valid at 17 independent Edmonton-area restaurants, I can’t think of a better present for your epicurean friends.
  • Starbucks has been promoting a campaign of culinary coffee pairings, going the route of wine. Though I like the education aspect of it, it’s also a clever way to try and upsell their pastries. I did sample the Chocolate Cinnamon Bread the other day (though with tea and not alongside the recommended coffee), and it was surprisingly bland. Perhaps I’ll eat it with its “other half” next time.
  • Also on Starbucks – did anyone notice how quickly the stores cycled through their drinks this summer? From Raspberry to Orange to Blueberry Frappuccinos and Iced Teas, and now to their Fall Pumpkin Spiced Latte…I felt it was a bit too much, too soon, going against their marketed ideal for the summer of relaxing and just enjoying life.
  • I stopped by Essence Organic Tea Bar (10011 102 Ave) on Friday, and had their Java Lat-tea (I will admit the pun made me smile). It’s actually better than a very similar drink I had at Blendz in Vancouver, and though perhaps mainly psychological, it felt healthier than a cup of joe. I hope their business picks up – it was completely empty during my visit.

Notes on Coffee & Tea

  • Finally went to DeCapo Caffe (8738 109 Street) last week. It reminded me of Caffe Sorrentino with its polished metal, pendant lighting, and sleek, simple decor. It was also more expensive, with my iced latte ringing up as $4.75. It’s an eco-friendly alternative to Starbucks (they have a no paper cup policy), but just not as cozy.
  • Essence Organic Tea Bar (10011 102 Avenue) is now open.
  • Second Cup is now in the business of granola bars! Boxes of Moccaccino or Vanilla Bean Latte Cafe Delights are available at a grocery store near you.
  • I mentioned this back in May, but beyond special occasions, Starbucks has created a line of greeting cards. Of the three, my favorite is the birthday one featuring the text, “Lattes are the new birthday cake.” Hee. While I don’t think the cards are very unique, the convenience factor of picking one up along with a mug or a pound of coffee is tough to ignore.
  • This summer, you can also send a friend an electronic Starbucks invitation for coffee here.

Tidbits: Notes from Edmonton’s Epicurean Scene

  • St. Albert’s outdoor farmer’s market kicks off for the season on Saturday, July 7. Though the City Centre market takes first place in my books, St. Albert runs a close second.
  • On the heels of Moon Garden, another Vietnamese restaurant has opened up in town. Phobulous (yes, that really is the name) has set up shop at 8701 109 Street. The text underneath their sign claims “authentic” cuisine, but really, with a name like that, who will take them seriously?
  • Watch out for Essence Organic Tea Bar (10011 102 Avenue). Though still under construction, I’d be curious to see what their conception of a “tea bar” is (the idea in my head is an amalgamation of Steeps and an Asian bubble tea shop).
  • Arts on the Ave Edmonton Society is a grassroots initiative with a goal of revitalizing the Alberta Avenue area. One of their major projects – a coffeehouse – will have its grand opening this Friday. Named The Carrot, after a quote by Paul Cezanne (“The day is coming when a single carrot, freshly observed, will set off a revolution.”), the cafe will showcase art, music and other performances. Definitely a cause to get behind – bravo for this achievement!