Explore BC: Kelowna

When Mack and I decided on a trip to the Okanagan in October, one of the main draws for us was the wine. Earlier in the year, we took a day trip out of Toronto to visit the Niagara wine region. We learned a lot, but it seemed time to do more exploring closer to home.

We flew into Kelowna, but made our way down to Penticton, Oliver, and Osoyoos over the course of a week with the help of a car. While the distance between Kelowna and Osoyoos is only about two hours, the following series of posts are grouped around towns, and focuses on our favourite experiences. Most of our food-related choices were guided by Jennifer Cockrall-King’s excellent book, Food Artisans of the Okanagan.

Pumpkins!

A sea of pumpkins at Don-O-Ray Vegetables in Kelowna

Myra Canyon Trestles

While I typically do quite a bit of planning in advance of our trips, I didn’t have a chance to do so on this occasion. So Trip Advisor was a great last minute tool, and ultimately pointed us to the Myra Canyon Trestles. We discovered first hand why this is Kelowna’s number one tourist attraction, though the signage to the road leading up to the trestles could have been better. Once parked, we rented bikes from Myra Canyon Rentals for $40 (don’t expect anything more than a truck-pulled rack). The half-day rental was plenty to complete the 23km round trip, even for irregular cyclists like us.

Myra Canyon Trestles

Ready to ride

The mostly flat trail takes visitors to 18 trestles, many of them spanning across deep valleys. The trail follows what was once part of the historic Kettle Valley Railway. I’m sure the views are stunning any time of year, but in the fall, they seemed particularly spectacular.

Myra Canyon Trestles

Trestle

We learned later that many of the trestles had to be rebuilt after the devastating 2003 fire – I can’t imagine the work that went into restoring such a treasure, but I sure can appreciate it.

There are also other sights to see – two tunnels, blasted through rock, and if you’re lucky, wildlife. We encountered a lynx that was making its way down a cliff with freshly caught prey.

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Tunnel

Even if you choose not to rent bikes, you can still make your way to several of the trestles and both tunnels with a brief hike, but I’d recommend cycling for the fullest experience.

Myra Canyon

Beautiful trails

Tree Brewing Beer Institute

The Tree Brewing Beer Institute is located right downtown, and was the perfect place to grab a drink and a bite to eat after cycling the Myra Canyon trail. It’s a low-key place with no table service (you order from the counter), but in addition to the monitors, you have the choice of dozens of boards games to entertain your party. I enjoyed their version of a grapefruit radler, while Mack thought their light brew was refreshing. Their pretzels and pizza (served lightning fast) also hit the spot.

Tree Brewing Co

Pretzels, pizza and beer

On a side note, the Institute also happens to be right across the street from the Kelowna Art Gallery. Check the calendar – if you’re lucky (as we were), you can check out the shows inside for free every Thursday. During our visit, we had the pleasure of taking in a thought-provoking exhibit focusing on the seasonal agricultural workers that populate the region many months of the year.

Okanagan Lavender and Herb Farm

We wrongly expected that the fields at the Okanagan Lavender and Herb Farm would be purple all year round, so the visit was educational. We learned that lavender peaks in July, so those hoping for those lush colours should visit in the summer. That said, we still found the views picture perfect, especially with the lake views in the distance.

Kelowna

Okanagan Lavender and Herb Farm

The gift shop is also a great place to pick up something for home, with lavender showing up in reasonably priced bath and beauty products.

Paynter’s Fruit Stand

What’s more quintessential to a trip to the Okanagan than picking fresh fruit? As we pulled up to Paynter’s Fruit Stand, we realized we’d already been there before.

Paynter's Fruit Market

Paynter’s Fruit Stand

A few years back, we visited Kelowna in late October, and stopped at Paynter’s to buy some fruit. This time, there was still the opportunity to pick pears and apples.

Paynter's Fruit Market

An apple a day

We relished in the chance to partake in the you-pick; the most surprising were perhaps the red delicious apples, which were deep purple in colour on the branches. And yes, the fruit were all great to eat, especially the crisp pink lady apples.

Paynter's Fruit Stand

Purple Red delicious

Micro Bar Bites

On that same visit a few years ago, we ate at RauDZ, launched by Chef Rod Butters, widely considered to be one of the pioneers of the farm-to-table movement in Kelowna. We had high expectations that weren’t met at the time, but Micro Bar Bites, a second restaurant by Chef Butters, had opened more recently and piqued our interest.

Micro Bar Bites

Micro Bar Bites

We were instantly charmed by the warm interior and great service. Don’t be fooled by the name – it refers to the size of the room as opposed to the portions. The beef croquettes actually would have been more successful as two-bite appetizers, but we appreciated their generosity. I also liked the cornmeal gnocchi with citrus marmalade.

Micro Bar Bites

Beef croquettes with patatas bravas

Micro Bar Bites

Cornmeal gnocchi with citrus marmalade

Mad Mango Cafe

Mad Mango Cafe, opened up by an Edmonton ex-pat, has a following that reminds me of Chicken for Lunch. Proprietor Pat (like Amy) even fires up customers’ orders before they’ve sat down.

Mad Mango has a film chronicling Kelowna’s love of the restaurant, and a steady stream of regulars of all ages. The laksa soup may not have been authentic (adapted with locally available produce), but the creamy, spicy soup hit the spot.

Mad Mango

Laksa soup

After a whirlwind two nights in Kelowna, we were off to Penticton!

Weekend Getaway: Exploring Rocky Mountain House

Mack and I are fall vacationers, more than content to make the most of our short but glorious Edmonton summers kicking back and attending local festivals. But this year, I felt the need to interrupt our regularly scheduled programming with a long weekend away at the end of August.

Hoping for a getaway that didn’t involve too much time in a vehicle, I literally googled "Central Alberta bed and breakfasts". This led us to Prairie Creek Inn, located about 15 minutes south of Rocky Mountain House. It’s a part of the province neither of us had visited before, and located just two and a half hours away from Edmonton, it seemed to be a reasonable distance to travel for a rejuvenating weekend.

Prairie Creek Inn

Prairie Creek Inn

Prairie Creek Inn offers an environment ideal to quietly reconnect with the outdoors, unplug from the demands of staying connected, and enjoy the company of your fellow travellers. Though most of the other guests were couples as well, there were also a number of young families on the property during our stay.

Prairie Creek Inn

Prairie Creek

Our room was very cozy, and featured a sunny deck with Adirondack chairs from which we could hear the rushing creek. There are also two fire pits for guest use, and ample lawn for outdoor pursuits for humans and dogs alike.

Prairie Creek Inn

I could get used to this

Breakfasts, of course, were included, with a small continental selection of freshly baked muffins and house-made granola and yogurt. One chef’s choice was also offered, and during our stay included a baked omelette one morning and cream cheese-stuffed French toast on another. The restaurant, perched atop a hill, offered great views of the lush property in a dining room lined with windows.

Prairie Creek Inn

View from Heartstone Restaurant

Given the distance from town, we also elected to have suppers at the restaurant as well. The menu isn’t varied enough to enjoy too many consecutive meals, but it was fine for two nights. The salmon, served with lemon dill beurre blanc, was my favourite of the mains we tried.

Prairie Creek Inn

Salmon with lemon dill beurre blanc

During the day, we made it out to the Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site. It’s probably something I should have known, having lived in Alberta all of my life, but I didn’t realize that Rocky Mountain House is actually quite distant from the Rocky Mountains. It began as a fur trading post (located on the North Saskatchewan River), and also served as a launching point for explorers such as mapmaker David Thompson.

Rock Mountain House Historic Site

Trails

For just $3.90 per adult, we were granted access to a well-maintained interpretive centre and two hiking trails. One trail featured interpreters at a makeshift Metis camp and blacksmith shop.

Rock Mountain House Historic Site

Blacksmith demonstration

The other involved a riverside hike which was lovely even in the damp conditions. And though I was initially skeptical of the Parks Canada #sharethechair campaign, I’ve been won over since.

Rocky Mountain House Historic Site

Sharing the chairs

Mack was particularly looking forward to the wildlife we might encounter. But the closest we got on that hike (and the rest of the weekend) was some gophers and penned-in bison.

Rock Mountain House Historic Site

“Wild”life

We also visited downtown Rocky Mountain House. Quite the opposite of Lacombe, whose downtown was busy and vibrant, the main streets of Rocky were deserted, littered with empty storefronts.

Rocky Mountain House

Nicely streetscaped, but deserted

On our way back home, we detoured somewhat to visit Crescent Falls. The views from the top of the gorge are pretty spectacular, but trails here make it possible to get even closer to the water’s edge.

Crescent Falls

Nearing Crescent Falls

Crescent Falls

Crescent Falls

Not being the most adventurous spirit, it was a bit of a stretch for me to hike down a cliff that involved the use of ropes, but it was worth it to get out of my comfort zone (and realize the benefit hiking boots would provide).

Crescent Falls

We made it!

We stopped in Nordegg for some provisions before the journey home. With a population of 200, this isn’t a full service town, so we didn’t expect the crowd we encountered at one of its few restaurants. Miner’s Cafe, located in the Nordegg Museum, was packed with regulars and families passing through. Known for its homemade pies (they sold over 1,000 this year), we enjoyed a slice of strawberry rhubarb with a generous scoop of ice cream on the side.  It’s only open during the summer months, and is now closed for the season.

Miner's Cafe

Miner’s Cafe

While we’re happy that we can tick Rocky Mountain House off our list of places visited, there are still more sites in Alberta to explore!

Back in the 6ix: Escape to Niagara

As much as I love Toronto, I was happy with our decision to escape the bustling city for two days. We rented a car and drove out to Niagara wine country.

Jordan

Jordan, a real life Stars Hollow

I was enticed by the photos and reviews online for the Inn on the Twenty in Jordan, and it was possibly the best decision we made on the trip. The boutique hotel was charming and situated on a street that could have doubled as the set for Stars Hollow. Breakfast was included in the restaurant, and the dinner we enjoyed the night prior was well done. I’d heartily recommend a stay to anyone considering a night in the area.

Toronto Trip

Perfect pickerel and fiddleheads

We also joined a wine tour so neither of us would have to worry about driving. Crush on Niagara Wine Tours offers pick-ups from area hotels, which was perfect for us. It was supposed to be a group tour, but the bonus of travelling in the off-season is that it ended up being a private tour just for the two of us!

We visited 4 larger (160 acres) and smaller (10 acres) wineries, which was a good representation for us. They all offered something interesting – Flat Rock Cellars had the best view, with their tasting room on stilts allowing a glimpse of Lake Ontario and even Downtown Toronto.

Jordan Wine Region

At Flat Rock Cellars

DiProfio was obviously a family-run business, and provided the best hospitality during our tasting, with generous pours.

Jordan Wine Region

DiProfio Winery

GreenLane was the most educational, and my favourite stop, as Jane, our guide, was thorough and able to answer all of our questions about the type of grapes that thrive in cold climate viticulture (explaining why you find so many Ontario Rieslings but never any Malbecs). We had no idea the last two winters had done so much damage to the area’s wineries, some losing as much as 65% of their vines.

Jordan Wine Region

A revelation in discovering the difference made by aged vines

The sommelier at Vineland Estates was clearly experienced and had a fine palate, but both Mack and I were suspicious of the technology they chose to adopt. They’re the first winery in Canada who has invested $250,000 in an optical-based camera that only selects the ripest grapes for inclusion in their wine (everything else is blown off the conveyor belt, and not considered even for compost). It seemed unnecessary and wasteful, but then again, what do we know? At any rate, the tour was a great way to get a feel for some of the area’s wineries without the stress of having to navigate the wine trail on our own.

Jordan Wine Region

Vineland Estates, complete with two helipads

Before heading back to town, we made a pit stop at Dillon’s. The distillery is not only known for their spirits, but also for their bitters (found in Edmonton at The Silk Road and Habitat, among others). We didn’t have enough time for a full tour, but did taste some of the products not available in Alberta. I really enjoyed their Limoncello, sweeter than the traditional liqueur. But we both found their gin 22 (with 22 botanicals without a juniper-forward taste) to be the one we will pick up in the future (thankfully, available in Alberta, including Everything Wine, where we picked it up in Sherwood Park).

Dillon's

The very photogenic Dillon’s tasting bar

We didn’t even make it out to Niagara Falls this time but neither of us regretted that decision – there was just so much else to experience! If you’re able to schedule a day trip out to Jordan or the surrounding communities the next time you’re in Toronto, I’d highly recommend doing so.

Back to the 6ix: All About the Food

Even though we were only in Toronto for a week, we managed to cram in many restaurants new to us.

Smoke’s Burritorie

A surprising highlight was Smoke’s Burritorie (how can you not love it based on the name alone?). We stopped there for a pre-Jays game lunch, after we found the wait at Amanda’s neighbourhood brunch place, Mildred’s Temple Kitchen, was upwards of 1.5 hours. As it turns out, we were the only customers in the Burritorie.

Smoke's Burritorie

Smoke’s Burritorie

Their poutine burrito, customized with any number of meats, rang in at just $7.49, but with the crispy grilled exterior, slightly sweet gravy, and delectable chorizo, was one of the best things I ate all trip. Smoke’s most recent offshoot, the Weinerie, will definitely be on our to-go list the next time we’re in town.

Kinton Ramen

I’ve been wanting to try Kinton Ramen for some time, and we finally made it in on this trip. The Queen West location was quiet when we arrived around 4pm, but I imagine service to be efficient anytime in this well-oiled machine. The tonkotsu broth was deliciously creamy, and perfectly seasoned, though Mack’s shoyu broth was on the salty side.

Kinton Ramen

Tonkotsu ramen

The thin noodles had a nice bite to them, while the pork shoulder and belly was torched to order, further enhancing the flavour. With five locations in the Toronto area, we can understand now the quality that has led them to a ramen empire.

Valdez

Amanda had been wanting to try Valdez, a new-ish Latin American restaurant, down the street from her condo. The bumpin’ vibe reminded me of Rostizado, with menus also driven by the ever-popular family-style philosophy. The standout dishes for me included the chaufa, a duck confit fried rice dish, and mofongo, a plantain-based dish that made me entirely rethink plantains (and for Mack, lived up to the SNL David Ortiz joke).

Valdez

Chaufa

I also liked their take on chips – beyond tortillas, they included fried plantains and root vegetables.

Valdez

Chips and five layer dip

Figo

Figo was my post-Jays game pick, one of Toronto Life’s best new restaurants this year. It is a simply stunning room (made for Instagram), with marble table tops, soft lighting and a Parisian feel. I’m still not sure the server should have been so enthusiastic about the feature wine that I tried (a clay-aged white from Slovenia that tasted closer to a cider than a wine), but we really enjoyed their signature zucchini fritters – tempura-battered ribbons of zucchini (and at $9 per plate, must be a huge money maker).

Figo

Zucchini fritters

Mack’s scallops were well-prepared, while the pasta in my wild boar bucatini should have been cooked further.

Figo

Scallops

Figo would be a lovely spot for lunch to take full advantage of the windowed space.

Sweet Jesus

Sweet Jesus, a Milk Bar-style soft serve parlour, seemed to be the hottest thing in Toronto, with line-ups easily 50 deep at any given time. The weather wasn’t even particularly fitting for ice cream during our stay, but we braved the lines and tried it anyway. The soft serve centrepiece was noticeably thick and creamy (meaning in the cold we didn’t need the benefit of the melt guard around the base), and held up well to the ridiculous topping combinations. For Mack and I, it was bits of smashed Christie’s cookies, and for Amanda and Jason, studs of birthday cake, complete with a lit candle to celebrate. Is it worth the wait though? It was probably more satisfying than our New York experience of Milk Bar, if that speaks to our enjoyment of it.

Sweet Jesus

With our Sweet Jesus ridiculousness

DaiLo

DaiLo, a hip Asian fusion restaurant, had an interesting menu. It was packed to the brim even on a Tuesday night, with a noise level that nearly rivalled People’s Eatery. Another establishment that is set-up for family-style sharing, the server started off on the wrong foot by suggesting we "order more dishes than we think we could eat" when asked how many she would recommend for a party of four. Then, when our first two dishes arrived, comically tiny, we thought the small-plate trend had gone to the extreme. By the end, our other plates balanced things out.

Toronto Trip

Pureed salt cod dip and Chinese doughnuts

Jason couldn’t get enough of a puréed salt cod dip, served with Chinese doughnuts, and Amanda and I appreciated the masterful hands behind the fluffy steamed buns that formed the basis of a build-your-own char siu sandwich.

DaiLo

Char siu with steamed buns

The Korean confit duck legs also had great flavour, with crispy skins and just a hint of gojuchang heat. With the packed Bar Raval next door, it’s a way for out of towners to get a 2-for-1 experience of what’s hot in the T.O.

Saturday Dinnette

Our friends Janice and Bennett suggested a new restaurant in their east Toronto neighbourhood for our dinner out. Saturday Dinnette has a great story – the chef/owner found out she was pregnant soon after opening the restaurant, so had no choice but to raise her child at the restaurant, so to speak.

Saturday Dinette

Saturday Dinnette

When her son Miles was a baby, the crib was parked next to the stove, and servers would take turns bussing tables with Miles on their hip as his mom cooked. Miles is a toddler now, so his crib has since been moved, but it’s a great reminder of the adjustments some working moms have no choice but to make. The diner-inspired menu featured a creamy mac ‘n’ cheese, though our favourite dish was the cornbread, dusted with icing sugar and sweet enough to be a dessert.

Saturday Dinette

Corn bread

Rose and Sons

Four years ago, we checked out The Drake when it was one of the new anchors of West Queen West, and Chef Anthony Rose was an up and coming name. Now, he has an empire of his own, so we were curious to see what one of his standalone restaurants would be like.

Rose and Sons

Rose and Sons

Rose and Sons at Dupont had some of the most laid back but solid service we had experienced on the trip. It was a bit strange to us that they didn’t have their blue plate special up until an hour into their dinner hour, but I did enjoy the matzo ball soup, with its simple but showstopping smoked chicken and generous whack of dill.

Rose and Sons

Mac ‘n’ cheese and matzo ball soup

Khao San Road @ Nana

Thai restaurant Khao San Road is known for its epic evening line-ups (my sister had to wait close to two hours once), so we felt fortunate to be able to try their menu as a daytime lunch "pop-up" at their sister restaurant Nana. It felt pricey for the portion size, but that’s typical of Toronto.

Nana Thai

Pad Thai

At least Mack’s green curry had a generous amount of chicken, and by the end, I was satisfied with my Bankok-style pad thai.

Nana Thai

Green curry

Colette Grand Café

Colette Grand Café was Amanda’s pick, and very much could be the sister restaurant of Figo. It had the same Parisian feel, with natural light, pastels, and marble tabletops, and felt like the sort of restaurant frequented by girlfriends in heels. Our server thankfully removed any pretentiousness we would have otherwise felt. I really enjoyed their version of French onion soup, enhanced with textures of oxtail pieces and crispy fried onions. The roasted carrot salad with flavours of cumin, coriander, creamy sheep’s milk and Aleppo pepper is also something I will try to replicate at home.

Collette

French onion soup and roasted carrot salad

Amanda most liked the dessert, a delectable layered raspberry cheesecake fit for Instagram.

Collette

Raspberry cheesecake

Old School

Old School, a Blog T.O. recommendation for brunch, was perhaps our most disappointing meal. Everything in the restaurant, from the fake chalkboard wallpaper to the leather apron-wearing servers, seemed manufactured and disingenuous.

Old School

Old School

The food was just not good – the fruit was obviously past its prime, and the chive biscuits were several days old. Their "butchers crack" sugared bacon was also unnecessarily chewy.

Old School

The Standard plate

White Squirrel and Thor

We also hit up a few coffee shops that were new to us. I’ve been wanting to stop by White Squirrel for a while, and finally made it in. It wasn’t warm enough to order from the take out window facing the sidewalk, but I still got to snap a picture next to a pair of sweet pugs just outside the cafe.

Sharon

At White Squirrel

Thor was a sanctuary off busy Bathurst, and produced the best Americano I’ve had in some time. In the middle of the afternoon, it was busy, but not at all with sit down patrons – folks rushed in for their shot and were out the door in no time.

Thor Coffee

Mack’s latte at Thor

I’m glad we found some new favourites in Toronto, and had the chance to get outside of the city too – more on that next week.

Back in the 6ix: Toronto Attractions

My sister Amanda moved back to Toronto in the fall, and I promised to visit her in the spring. I was finally able to keep that promise in April. It’s no secret I love visiting the city, and each trip allows us to discover (and in some cases, rediscover) our new favourite spaces, places and events.

Toronto Trip

Nathan Phillips Square

Evergreen Brick Works Farmers’ Market

Many years ago, Amanda and I had complained our way through a covered-but-outdoors Toronto Underground Market at Evergreen Brick Works. I haven’t been back since then, but their weekly farmers’ market seemed like a great opportunity.

Evergreen Bick Works

Evergreen Brick Works

We probably shouldn’t have taken her boyfriend Jason’s vehicle, given the number of times we had to circle around, but it did make us wonder why anyone would drive there on a regular basis at all – it would incite road rage in most people. Inside, there weren’t as many produce vendors as we were expecting (recognizing that farmers are now down to their cellared products), and not one greenhouse producer. We did pick up some Best Baa sheep’s yogurt to try (not as tangy as the cow’s yogurt we’re used to), and refilled our supply of my favourite mustard, Kozlick’s.

Evergreen Bick Works

Shipping container vendors

The covered part of Evergreen housed vendors in shipping containers (great idea, though it must have still been chilly for the vendors), and some food trucks. It was our chance to try Eva’s Chimney Cakes, a genius marriage of Hungarian cinnamon-sugar doughnuts (available one year at K-Days) and soft serve.

Evergreen Bick Works

With my doughnut cone

The "cone" had to be cooled in order to not immediately liquefy the ice cream, and lost its chewy doughnut quality in the process. I did enjoy the mix-in of apple preserves though.

Gladstone Flea Market

The Gladstone Hotel is considered (along with The Drake Hotel) the anchor of West Queen West. They host a monthly flea market curated with unique, independent vendors.

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Gladstone Flea Market

Amanda and Jason sampled some sustainable pasta sauce (with mealworms blended in), while Mack and I picked up some Toronto Bee Rescue honey, made from undesired hives rescued from homes or construction projects. Best of all, there was no entrance fee to the market.

The Social

Mack had never been to a television taping in Toronto, but was still a good sport when he agreed to accompany me to an episode of The Social. It’s not something I watch regularly, but on and off if I happen to be home during the day. Still, it’s always interesting to see how they produce the show behind the scenes (set changes, cues, etc.). Mack’s highlight was getting a high-five from actress Arielle Kebbel, who was the guest host that day.

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With The Social hosts Melissa Grelo and Cynthia Loyst

Battle Sports

I stumbled upon the Battle Sports website after learning about their Rage Room on a segment on The Social. They were featuring 50% off their archery dodgeball, and Amanda and Jason were game, so we tried it.

Battle Sports

Our Battle Sports team

In hindsight, even an hour in the arena wasn’t a good idea for our out-of-shape bodies, as we were not used to all of the crouching and quick movements required of us to stay in the game. At any rate, this sport required the use of foam arrows and axes to fell opponents, and between the adrenaline-inducing music and some overly aggressive participants, it was much more stressful than I thought it would be. While I enjoyed the actual archery, I could have done without the format.

New Urbanism Film Festival

I convinced Amanda to join us for the New Urbanism Film Festival, in its second year. It was a screening of a collection of North American short films, ranging in topic from the blight of raised freeways to the failure of pedestrian malls. As expected, some films were more engaging than others, but I would have appreciated a more localized context following the screening. A panel discussion about ideas as they related to Toronto would have been fascinating.

Toronto Blue Jays

Mack hadn’t been to a live Blue Jays game before, so Amanda made sure that was on our agenda.

Go Blue Jays!

Our view at Rogers Centre

The tickets were so reasonably priced ($26), and there was even a giveaway that day – Josh Donaldson bobbleheads. It was great to be in a packed house (46,000+), much different than the last game I attended. And even better, the Jays beat the White Sox, 6-2!

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With our Bringer of Rain bobblehead

Toronto Raptors’ Jurassic Park

Before our date with Real Sports (a tradition whenever I’m in Toronto), we had the chance to visit Jurassic Park outside the Air Canada Centre before Game 4 during their series with the Pacers.

Jurassic Park

Jurassic Park

It wasn’t as packed as we expected (we learned later that the crowd is smaller for away games), but there was great energy in the square, with a live DJ, a big screen, and alcohol available.

Jurassic Park

Ready to beat Jason one on one

I know there are plans for something similar in Ice District’s winter plaza (if the Oilers ever get to the playoffs), so it’ll be interesting to see how an Edmonton version of Jurassic Park would play out. And yes, I’m still keeping my fingers crossed for an Edmonton branch of Real Sports in the District.

Jurassic Park

We the North!

I’ll be back with a food-centric post later this week.

Mini-Break in the Mountains: Jasper in January

With the low Canadian dollar and cheap gas prices, I imagine many families are considering staycation options this year. Moreover, although Calgarians often point out Edmonton’s comparable distance to the Rockies as one of our shortcomings, the four hour drove to Jasper really isn’t that much to overcome. It’s definitely close enough for a weekend jaunt, and personally, knowing that a vacation from work is implausible over the next few months, a short getaway is exactly what I’ll need come spring.

Athabasca Falls

Athabasca Falls

My familiarity with Jasper began only a few years ago as an adult, as Banff was my family’s destination of choice growing up. A weekend at the Jasper Park Lodge’s famed Christmas in November in 2014 opened my eyes to the town as a destination in winter. I continued learning about Jasper’s possibilities a few weeks ago, along with Mack and some other media folks, including Linda, Mike, Gail, Phil and Robyn. Tourism Jasper covered our accommodation, transportation and most of the meals that we enjoyed over the weekend.

Linda

Linda takes an #elkie

Jasper in January has been taking place for twenty seven years, and what started as a celebration of skiing and snowboarding at Marmot Bason has grown into a wide-ranging festival that features other winter sports, arts and food.

Getting There

Did you know that there is a shuttle that runs daily from Edmonton to Jasper? Well, neither did we, until we booked the Sundog Transportation and Tours bus. It departs from West Edmonton Mall at 3:50pm, to arrive in Jasper by 8pm, with brief stops in Hinton and Edson along the way ($89 one-way ticket for adults). The ride was comfortable, and as Mack noted, it was nice not to have to drive, especially after dark.

That said, the only departure time from Jasper back to Edmonton was at 7am – which means it wouldn’t be possible to make the most of a two-night trip to Jasper. We ended up carpooling home with Phil and Robyn to extend our stay into the afternoon.

Also, as we were shuttled around the Jasper area as a group, had we been without a personal vehicle, it would have been difficult to make our way from one destination to another outside of anything within the town site. While taxis were a reliable source of transportation, they may not be the most economical solution for a holiday.

Scenic Pastures

The highlight of our visit was an afternoon at Marmot Meadows, a Parks Canada Winter Hub. Throughout the season, there will be opportunities to learn more about wildlife, Aboriginal culture, and winter activities at a site that encourages interaction with the outdoors. A skating rink was in the process of being formed (which, as a TV junkie, reminded me of the picturesque mountainside rink in the first season of Everwood), and a cross-country ski track was well-worn in the valley.

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Yes, I’m having Everwood flashbacks

Our group participated in a beginner snowshoe activity. Unlike the snowshoes I remembered from my youth – those wooden frames based on more traditional models – Parks Canada staff introduced us to lighter, metal frame versions that were easier to use. We padded into the woods with our guide, relishing the steps into fresh, undisturbed powder.

Mack & Sharon

Snowshoeing

Left to our own devices, Linda and I engaged in some friendly competition, racing short distances in the snowshoes. It was the most fun I had all weekend, and a winter activity I am now inspired to continue in the future.

Linda & Sharon

In it to win it

On Sunday, Phil and Robyn took us to some of their favourite natural wonders. Athabasca Falls is beautiful in the warmer months, but is perhaps even more breathtaking in the winter, with cascades of ice and snow churning below.

Athabasca Falls

Athabasca Falls

With the hard packed trail, it was obvious that many have come to admire the Falls in the winter. But given the parking lot was uncleared, and the walkways were for the most part snowed over and unsanded, it doesn’t seem to be an officially sanctioned attraction in the winter.

Robyn & Phil

Our tour guides

Pyramid Lake, in the shadow of a peak that shares the same name, is set up as its own outdoor activity hub in the winter, and is only about a ten-minute drive from the town of Jasper. Mountain Park Lodges, which operates Pyramid Lake Resort adjacent to the lake, maintains several rinks and ski trails. They offer rentals for visitors without equipment, but we spotted many families who brought their own equipment for an afternoon of shinny, skating or cross-country skiing. In some ways, given the picture-perfect setting, we were surprised there wasn’t evidence of overt commercial sponsorships from national brewing or coffee brands.

Pyramid Lake

Pyramid Lake in winter

We had some fun throwing around curling logs, and warmed up in the lodge with some brunch. Afterwards, we took part in a genuine horse-drawn sleigh ride (no wheeled wagons here). At $25 per person, it could be a steep price to pay for families, but for us, it was a manageable cost that weekend. The rides are especially popular around the holidays, but continue to be offered on weekends until the end of March, conditions permitting.

Sharon

Curling logs!

With the jangle of sleigh bells and the breathtaking mountain in front of us, it felt like a postcard experience. The sleigh even had fuzzy warm blankets for the ride, appreciated on that blustery afternoon.

Jasper in January

Horse-drawn sleigh at Pyramid Lake

Good Eats

Jasper in January had three themed weekends: arts, appetites, and adventures, though some activities spnned multiple weeks. Our trip centred around appetites, and I’m happy to say, we discovered some culinary gems.

The Wicked Cup is a great place to start your day. It’s a charming establishment with a restaurant, cafe and gift shop, and based on their brunch offerings, I wouldn’t hesitate to return for other meals. The pancakes ($10.50) I ordered were not for the faint of heart, served with a wild berry compote and whipped cream. They were fluffy and delicious, and yes, felt a bit like having dessert to start off the day.

Wicked Cup

Classic pancakes from The Wicked Cup

Jasper Brewing Company is a brew pub located within the town site. They have locations in Banff, Calgary and Fort McMurray, which all have individual identities and offer different signature brews. John Palko, the brewmaster in Jasper, was noncommittal about a future location in Edmonton, but didn’t rule it out.

Jasper Brewing Co

John Palko of the Jasper Brewing Company

Their model is to sell their beer from the brew pub itself, with the exception of festivals or fundraisers they participate in. Jasper Brewing Company prides itself on serving fresh beer – from mash to pint in 10 days – and produced 115,000L in 2015. Their most popular beer is their Jasper the Bear honey ale.

Mack tried a flight of their beers, which is a great way to sample the six they had on tap. His favourite ended up being the Liftline Cream Ale.

Untitled

A flight of beers from Jasper Brewing Company

We also learned a bit about backcountry cooking at a session led by Wild Current. For winter camping excursions, because of the cold, it’s even more important that people stay hydrated and consume nutrient-rich foods. We sampled some rehydrated pastas and chilis (made by adding hot water directly to the package), as well as a stew put together by Wild Current staff.

Jasper in January

Serving up stew

It was somewhat curious that instead of assembling the stew as a demonstration, we were told it had been put together off-site and just reheated on the campfire. Hopefully Parks Canada reworks the session in the future to make it more hands-on and interactive.

For dinner, we were ushered to the majestic Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. We enjoyed a three-course meal consisting of highlights from Orso Trattoria’s regular menu, and for me, dessert took the cake. The Tarte de Nero, paired with a ten year Tawny Port, was a rich and satisfying way to end a wonderful evening. As has been my experience at the JPL, the service was once again top-notch.

Jasper in January

Tarte de Nero from Jasper Park Lodge

Wines in Winter is an annual wine tasting event hosted by Mountain Park Lodges. The $30 ticket was perhaps the best value item all weekend – besides the appetizers that were included within the price, attendees were able to sample over 100 different types of wine.

I would have personally liked to have seen more Canadian wines represented, but we did find our way to the Ontario and BC labels being poured. Mack couldn’t help but be drawn to the Great One.

Wayne & Mack

Enjoying the Wayne Gretzky Series Cabernet Merlot

Our last meal before departing for the weekend was both scenic and delicious (typically, it’s only one for two). The Pines Restaurant inside the Pyramid Lake Resort has a lakefront view, and is beautifully designed to take advantage of the panoramic sights.

Pyramid Lake

The Pines Restaurant

Mack and I both couldn’t resist the decadent croissantwich ($12), layered with a fried egg, avocado, tomatoes, chorizo, and cheddar. The only downside was perhaps not having the foresight to order two sandwiches each.

Pyramid Lake

Croissantwich from The Pines

If you’re planning to attend Jasper in January next year, take a look at Jasper in January for what to expect, or more broadly, at any time of year, on Tourism Jasper for ideas – I’m already looking forward to our next mini-break in the mountains.

Thanks again to Tourism Jasper for the opportunity to further explore Jasper!

Check out Mack’s post about our weekend here.

Road Trip: Fort Saskatchewan and Jurassic Forest

At the end of June, in lieu of a birthday gift, Mack and I took the opportunity to spend the day together and explore some area attractions that we hadn’t made the time for yet.

To start, we headed to Fort Saskatchewan for their highest profile restaurant – The Downtown Diner. Having been featured not only in the Journal, but also in Food Network’s You Gotta Eat Here, Keith and Lori’s brand of comfort food has attracted some devout fans, many who are willing to make the drive from Edmonton for a meal.

Because of that, we were expecting a bit more of a line, but hey, no complaints here. It also probably helped that we missed the frenzy caused by the television episode by about a week. The diner itself is fairly non-descript on the outside, located along one of the main drags in downtown Fort Saskatchewan. Inside, the L-shaped restaurant is lined with cushy red vinyl booths and checkered floors, and looks exactly how you’d imagine a diner to be.

The Downtown Diner

The Downtown Diner

The staff also play their part – they were genuinely welcoming and friendly, with Keith making a point to thank every table for their business.

The menu is full of diner classics including burgers, fried chicken and mac ‘n’ cheese. Our seat by the kitchen actually made ordering very difficult – everything coming off the counter looked amazing. I settled on the diner hash with some meat ($14), while Mack was swayed by the special, a fried chicken and waffle sandwich ($14).

He definitely won this round: the fried chicken was spot on, crispy and tender, sandwiched by layers of waffles and cream cheese.

The Downtown Diner

Fried chicken and waffle sandwich

My hash would have been enough to feed the two of us, made up of potatoes, scrambled eggs, turkey (an add in), and topped with gravy and hollandaise. In hindsight, fried eggs would have been the better choice, but it was still a satisfying dish. Both of us agreed we’d be back soon to take on the later day entrees.

The Downtown Diner

Diner hash with turkey

The staff at The Downtown Diner are definitely proud of their restaurant – it shows in the food and the service, and you won’t regret the trek out to see for yourself.

After brunch, we headed on foot to a nearby park to see the other attraction in Fort Saskatchewan that we’ve heard a lot about: the sheep.

If you didn’t know, Fort Saskatchewan started utilizing sheep as their living lawnmowers in 1992. From June to September, a flock of about fifty sheep can be seen grazing at various parks four days a week. And yes, this novelty draws its share of tourists, to the point where they have a “sheep hotline”.

Fort Saskatchewan Sheep

We found them!

On that scorcher of a day, the sheep weren’t too difficult to find, clustered under the only available shade cast by a grove of trees. Although the website proclaimed how friendly they were, they did seem pretty wary of us.

Fort Saskatchewan Sheep

With Fort Saskatchewan’s mascots

Along the way, we also stumbled upon the Fort Heritage District. It is a much smaller facility than our own Fort Edmonton, but they had an exciting lesson of axe throwing underway. We were invited to watch the students, but needless to say, we were asked to stand way back.

Fort Saskatchewan

Axe throwing at the Fort

We hopped back in the car and continued north to Gibbons for Jurassic Forest. With the release of the popular Jurassic World sequel this year, Mack was hoping for more formal staycation tie-ins with Jurassic Forest, but we only just realized that in some ways, the attraction is old hat – we were both surprised to hear that it opened back in 2010.

Since then, Jurassic Forest has undergone a number of upgrades, and have increased the animatronic figures from 42 to 51, and have enhanced their educational displays. We didn’t really know what to expect, but we hoped to be intrigued.

Jurassic Forest

T-Rex

The dinosaurs were split between two heavily shaded trails (something we were thankful for on that day). We initially liked the idea of “stumbling upon” the creatures as we turned the corner, unknowingly tripping a motion sensor, causing the figures to come to life.

Jurassic Forest

Edmontonsaurus, on the right

But in some ways, we were disappointed that the dinosaurs had such limited movement (opening of eyes, raising of arms, and flicking of tails).

Jurassic Forest

Stegasaurus, one of my childhood favourites

Mack was also anticipating that we’d be able to get closer to the animatronic displays. The novelty of seeing them in the distance like wildlife quickly go old, and some of the figures were hard to see in the bush.

Jurassic Forest

In the distance

While we appreciated the placards describing each dinosaur, there were also some randomly placed placards about the flora and fauna, which may not have actually coincided with their location. We understand the facility was trying to encourage learning about our own native species still present, but they seemed like an afterthought.

Jurassic Forest

T-rex selfie!

Since we were there anyway, we extended our stay with a round of mini golf. It was probably a mistake to remain out in the full sun for any longer than we had to, but it was a fun side activity.

Jurassic Forest

Journey to Extinction mini-golf

The Telus World of Science now has a similar animatronic exhibit called Dinosaurs Unearthed, so you may not have to travel as far to see these prehistoric creatures come to life. But it is at a smaller scale, and doesn’t have the built-in appeal of the outdoors. And while I’m not sure I’d recommend Jurassic Forest for very young or older children, it was still a site to experience.

Looking forward to our next adventure close to home!

Boston Travels 2015

I’ve been so behind on my travel posts I’m resigned to the fact that I’ll never catch up. But writing about my trip to Boston in April with my sister Amanda is a start for me!

The decision to vacation in Boston was actually one of elimination. Amanda was finishing up her training in Toronto, so we decided to book what would be a short-haul flight for her. We’d both been to New York before, she’d been to Detroit recently, and Chicago was a place Mack forbid me to visit without him. So Boston it was, and with the promise of the Bruins and the Celtics making it to the post-season, we were optimistic that we could include some playoff action during the trip.

View from Home

View from the rooftop deck of our AirBnB rental

Although only one of two teams would end up qualifying for the first round, we ended up with plenty to do outside of the city’s athletic achievements.

Boston’s connection to the American Revolution seems to be one of the main tourism draws. We ended up on a Freedom Trail tour led by a costumed interpreter. “Isaiah Thomas” was in his fifth season with the company, and his enthusiasm for history showed.

With Isaiah Thomas

With Isaiah Thomas

The tour was informative and entertaining, with corny jokes woven throughout (Beantown Pub, across from the Old Granary Burial Ground, is the “only place you can have a cold Sam Adams while looking at…a cold Sam Adams”). The Americans on the tour definitely had a better grasp of the characters involved, but it gave us a good foundation to better appreciate the sites.

Old Granary Burial Ground

Old Granary Burial Ground

One of those sites was Boston Common, a green space near the State House that reminded me of The Mall in Central Park. The Common was an area set aside by the Puritans for the shared use of all. The playground was overrun with children that day, and on a less chilly day, I’m sure the adjacent wading pond would be equally full. It was a great centrally-accessible, family-friendly space that we could definitely see more of in Edmonton.

Boston Common

Boston Common

On the other side of Boston Common lay the country’s oldest botanical gardens. We braved the spring chill to take a ride in the pedal-powered swan boats and snapped a picture with the famous Make Way for the Ducklings bronze sculpture.

Swan Boats

Swan boats

Here Come the Ducklings

With the Ducklings!

Faneuil Hall, a legacy building for a wealthy merchant, was a touristy disappointment, though I am glad we sought out the adjacent Haymarket.

Haymarket

Haymarket

Far from a farmers’ market, the vendors hawked discounted produce from wholesalers needing to make room for new shipments. There was also limited seafood to be had.

Haymarket

Seafood options

The low prices were likely the reason the set-up of the merchants was so poor; tent poles restricting right of way, narrow thoroughfares not meant for large crowds.

Haymarket

Haymarket produce

We couldn’t get enough of Boston’s wide sidewalks, blossoming trees and brick and stone buildings.

Beacon Hill

Bricks and blooms

Beacon Hill was Amanda’s favourite neighbourhood, with its quaint streets and boutiques (it was also the home of, in our opinion, the best location of Second Time Around, a well-curated consignment store with multiple branches in the Boston area). I will say Boston’s lack of a grid system of streets was confusing to navigate; our first night was full of wrong turns and frustrations. I will also note that Bostonians, although friendly, were not the best at giving directions – we were sent the wrong way three times.

Beacon Hill

Too quaint Beacon Hill

Outside of Boston, we explored Cambridge for the better part of a day.

Cambridge

Bustling Cambridge Square

Cambridge

Honour system book sales were scattered around the area

The student-led Harvard tour was the highlight, with historic facts of the storied school intertwined with the guide’s personal anecdotes.

Harvard Tour

Our tour guide, Bobby, in the red sweater

Among other things, we learned that The Social Network was, in fact, not filmed on campus (productions have been officially banned since the 1970s), and that most students receive an average of $42,000 in financial aid.

Harvard Tour

Memorial Church

Harvard Tour

With “John Harvard”

The JFK Presidential Library and Museum in Columbia Point was also a destination for us.

JFK Presidential Museum & Library

JFK Presidential Library and Museum

The site itself was worth a visit, with a view of the Boston skyline, and a gorgeous atrium emblematic of hope and optimism.

JFK Presidential Museum & Library

Stunning atrium

But the exhibits were interesting too, outlining Kennedy’s Presidential campaign, his years in office (with a focus on the Cuban Missile Crisis) and Jacqueline Kennedy’s contributions to the preservation of White House history. A particularly intriguing annotated guest list by Ms. Kennedy for a dinner honouring the French Minister of Culture included the scratched out names of Mr. & Mrs. Irving Berlin, for not being “avant-garde enough”.

JFK Presidential Museum & Library

I loved the “If I were 21, I’d vote for Kennedy” pins

As mentioned, sports factored into our itinerary. Game 4 of the Cavaliers vs. the Celtics was the first live NBA playoff game for both Amanda and I, and though neither of us can claim to be big Celtics fans, we relished the opportunity to watch King James in person (his no-look pass in the first quarter was a sight to see). Unfortunately for the home fans, the Celtics were outmatched, and the Cavs completed the sweep.

Cavs vs. Celtics

The view from the nosebleeds

We both looked forward to joining our fellow Canadians at Fenway, to watch the Blue Jays take on the home team.

Fenway Park

At Fenway!

The Red Sox are a religion in Boston, and it was amazing to see the surrounding streets of America’s oldest ball park come alive on game day (parking, if you were wondering, runs up to $50). Streetside vendors, program hawkers, and bustling patios created an atmosphere other cities would envy.

Fenway Park

Yawkey Way

The Jays ended up losing that night (6-5 on a 9th inning RBI), and the windchill was fierce, but we had a blast. I couldn’t wait for the eighth inning rendition of “Sweet Caroline”, and I wasn’t disappointed. I loved how the players just went about their business while the crowd was singing along.

What of the food, you ask? Amanda was sidelined with the stomach flu upon arrival to Boston, which somewhat limited our dining choices, at least initially. She was a trooper though, and we still managed to sample a variety of what Boston had to offer.

Food was a gateway into some of Boston’s neighbourhoods. Eater’s recommendation of Taiwan Café provided a reason to visit Chinatown, which, not unlike other Chinatowns in North America, had busy eateries but deserted streets after dark. Taiwan Café was packed mostly with college students, and offered cheap and tasty xiao long bao.

Taiwan Cafe

XLB from Taiwan Cafe

Our student Harvard guide had recommended a few North End establishments for us. Gennaro’s ended up being a let-down, with so-so food and no atmosphere to speak of (it was difficult to have any conversation while being watched by the host next to our table).

Gennaro's

Passable carbonara from Gennaro’s

Café Vittoria, in operation since 1929, was a better recommendation, serving up delicious lattes and gelato in and amongst antique espresso machines and a soundtrack from the 50’s.

Cafe Vittoria

Sustenance at Café Vittoria

Mike’s Pastry was referred to us as a touristy destination worth skipping, but we’re glad we stopped by, even just to soak up the atmosphere of a North End institution.

Mike's Pastry

Mike’s Pastry

Our lone brunch was had in Cambridge at the sister restaurant of a popular music venue. The Sinclair had a great vibe, and my favourite dining room of the trip, with large common tables and an industrial-chic aesthetic. The meat half of my chicken and waffle dish was great, but the waffle tasted a day-old.

The Sinclair

The Sinclair

The Sinclair

Chicken and waffles

For lunch after our Harvard tour, we sought out a tourist favourite, Mr. Bartley’s Burger Cottage, with politically incorrect names for all of their creations (for example, “the MBTA – Mass Broken Transit Authority”, referencing the disastrous February full of delays for beleaguered commuters). It was a place I knew Mack would love, with burgers cooked to preference and a haphazard décor cobbling together years of random additions.

Mr. Bartley's Burger Cottage

At Mr. Bartley’s Burger Cottage

It was also a restaurant that had been “grandfathered in” so it was permitted to operate without a customer restroom, something we had never encountered before.

Mr. Bartley's Burger Cottage

Medium rare(!) burger

Mei Mei, a brick and mortar restaurant borne from a successful food truck, was a bit of a disappointment. Selling its fusion dishes, we found that the Asian influences were just too subtle.

Mei Mei

Pierogi dumplings from Mei Mei

Amanda was strong enough to brave seafood towards the end of our trip, so we visited the local chain Legal Sea Foods in Copley Place. I really enjoyed the New England clam chowder, and their tempura take on fish and chips wasn’t bad either.

Legal Sea Foods

Great clam chowder from Legal Sea Foods

Our favourite meal was easily Sweet Cheeks Q, a barbecue joint opened up by Top Chef alum Tiffany Faison. The interior had the perfect worn-in feel, if staged, and the food spoke for itself. The biscuits, served with a compound butter, were the best thing I ate in Boston.

Sweet Cheeks Q

Still dreaming of these biscuits

The lunch tray, with Heritage pulled pork and mac ‘n’ cheese, was no slouch either. And though the service had been great in Boston as a whole, Sweet Cheeks topped the list with their genuine and attentive staff. I almost wished we had eaten here earlier on in the trip so we could double back.

Sweet Cheeks Q

Pulled pork lunch tray

I’m not sure I will revisit Boston again (Chicago is up next!), but we had a nice time there. Like any large metropolis, there’s something for everyone, though I’d recommend at least taking in a Red Sox game if you’re visiting during the season.

Culinary Highlights: 2014 Edition

I had a blast in 2014. Mack and I got married, had an amazing honeymoon, and leading up to it, we had our usual packed summer schedule. It was a wonderful year, with memories to last us a lifetime.

Here were some of my favourite food moments last year, starting off with some great local eats:

Tavern 1903

A part of me still doesn’t want to believe Tavern 1903 is closed for good; we loved the Korean fried chicken, truffled mac and cheese, and the desert shrub was my favourite cocktail in the city – RIP

Brunch at Elm's Dining Room

Although the Elm Café Dining Room is also no more, we loved their pop-up meals, which included buttermilk biscuits at brunch

The Parlour

I never thought I’d like, let alone enjoy, seafood on a pizza, but The Parlour makes magic happen with the Gamberi

Route 99

It was the year of the selfie – it seemed appropriate for Mack and I to take one at our favourite diner in the city

We did hit the road a few times before the honeymoon, with our annual winter sojourn to Calgary, a trip to Toronto for a friend’s wedding, and out to a nearby farm we’ve always been meaning to visit. We also had the privilege of attending Christmas in November at the Jasper Park Lodge.

River Cafe

It’s hard to believe it took us years to finally dine at Calgary’s River Café, but I guarantee we won’t wait that long before returning

Bymark

While in Toronto, our one splurge meal was at Mark McEwan’s Bymark – although the pan-seared halibut was perfect, it was the beluga lentils that spoke to me

Edgar Farms' Asparagus Festival

The return of locally-grown asparagus is what signals spring to us, so I’m happy we finally made it out to Edgar Farms’ annual Asparagus Festival last June

Sharon with the Olsons

It was a bit of a thrill for me to meet the Olsons at Christmas in November

Tourtiere

And though I probably didn’t cook as many new dishes this year as I have in the past, I can say that Anna Olson inspired me to make my first ever tourtiere. Even better, it turned out really well!

As usual, we had our share of events, starting with Eat Alberta in the spring, multiple What the Truck gatherings, our second 97 Street Night Market, and an ImMACulate Garden Party.

Eat Alberta 2014

It was my last Eat Alberta as a part of the organizing committee – it has been a blast!

What the Truck?! on 104 Street

What the Truck?! returned to 104 Street, in what was my favourite event of the year (the fact that I live on the street may have affected my choice)

97 Street Night Market

The 97 Street Night Market returned to Chinatown, and this year, included a food tour

Blink ImMACulate Garden Party

We partnered with the Hotel Macdonald for the ImMACulate Garden Party, a fundraiser for the Edmonton Humane Society

In early September, my sisters organized the best bridal shower for me. We started at Gail Hall’s loft for a cooking class, walked over to Tzin for an amazing meal, and ended with some bridal games.

Bridal shower

Making gnocchi at Seasoned Solutions

Sharon's Bridal Shower

We were lucky enough to receive two helpings of the bacon at Tzin

Bridal shower

The beautiful brides!

On September 27, 2015, I married my best friend. The only tears were happy ones (and mostly from me). To cap off a beautiful day, we had the most wonderful reception at RGE RD.

Mack & Sharon Wedding

Thanks to Blair and the team at RGE RD for a truly memorable meal (photo by Moments in Digital)

There’s so much more to say about the sights and sounds of Vietnam and South Korea that we experienced, but for now, these are the dishes that I’m still salivating over.

Honeymoon Part 1: Hoi An, Vietnam

Our homestay by the beach in Hoi An was a dream – where else would breakfast involve a regional dish as complex and delicious as cao lao?

Honeymoon Part 2: Ho Chi Minh City

Authentic bo bun hue in Ho Chi Minh City

Honeymoon Part 2: Can Tho

While in hindsight we should have included Hanoi in our itinerary, it was an experience to have pho for breakfast in Can Tho at 6 a.m.

Honeymoon

Japchae and fried rice at South Korea’s Namdaemun Market

Honeymoon

Mack will also never forget his favourite street dessert – an ice cream-filled waffle for $1

Though I’m still not certain where this year will take us, I can only hope it’s as delicious as 2014. Thanks for following along with me this year!

Christmas in November: Make-Ahead Entertaining with Chef Michael Allemeier and Final Thoughts

The whirlwind didn’t stop on our last day at Christmas in November. Mack and I were atypical early risers that morning on the promise of a behind-the-scenes kitchen tour. And even when we discovered that we had been misinformed (no tour had been scheduled on the final day), like dialing 55 for any other need, we were soon met by one of the chefs to make it happen regardless.

Christmas in November

The cooking never stops

It was a quieter time, to be sure, with preparations for the final brunch buffet yet to be underway. Still, the staff we encountered were contributing to the well oiled kitchen machine.

Christmas in November Christmas in November

One man controls all of the alcohol and foodstuffs

We were surprised to learn that the capacity of the hotel dropped so significantly after the departure of the last Christmas in November guests, but in a way, it explains why they pull out all of the stops for the event in what would otherwise be a very slow period.

Christmas in November Christmas in November

How about some stock?

It was a brief peek behind the curtain of a kitchen that did a wonderful job over the course of our stay – bravo!

Christmas in November

And did someone say wine?

Our last session of the weekend was with Chef Michael Allemeier of the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. It was obvious that Chef Allemeier was not only comfortable in the teaching role, but excelled at breaking seemingly complex dishes down into a series of manageable steps.

Chef Michael Allemeier

Chef Michael Allemeier

His entertaining philosophy revolved around preparing as much as possible ahead of time. In his ninety minute demonstration, he managed to work through an appetizer, a main course and a dessert. Although each dish was composed of multiple components, most could be made ahead of time and reheated just before serving. A little planning can go a long way!

Unlike some of the other menus we’d encountered over the weekend, Chef Allemeier’s was much more finessed, with restaurant-quality touches and plating suggestions. The fennel-cured salmon with horseradish mousse, creamy beets and pickled quails eggs sounds fussy at first, but it was definitely a starter with a wow factor.

Christmas in November

Fennel-cured salmon with horseradish mousse, creamy beets and pickled quails eggs

Some of his tips:

  • Using previously frozen fish is fine, and even recommended as the idea is to dry out the filet, and in the process of thawing out, it will continue to lose moisture;
  • Keep the skin on, as the layer of fat helps with the development of flavour, and makes it easier to carve;
  • When the fish feels like a medium-rare steak to the touch, it’s done;
  • This process could also be used with halibut, but it will require a few more days.

Chef Allemeier’s recipe for cardamom clove glazed ham with ginger snap crumb was much more familiar, but was paired with a unique twice baked souffle instead of the usual scalloped potato. His trick for hams (the majority of which are already cooked and more easily dried out) is to keep the temperature low and to build a delicious glaze.

Christmas in November

Cardamom clove glazed ham with ginger snap crumb

The blueberry sour cream cake and chantilly sour cream, lemon curd and sponge toffee featured recipes that could be replicated individually and work equally well paired with other sweet endings. Chef Allemeier called the sour cream cake the “unsung cheesecake”, and said that it was a dessert that reminded him of Manitoba.

Christmas in November

Blueberry sour cream cake and chantilly sour cream, lemon curd and sponge toffee

Some tips:

  • By lightly flouring the blueberries before mixing them in the batter, they won’t sink;
  • The cake is even better the next day – let it sit in the fridge overnight before serving.

Chef Allemeier was keen to answer questions all throughout, but never seemed condescending. It was clear he was used to working with audiences who ranged in knowledge and abilities, and even factored in the need for the crowd to snap photos of the final product – each dish was plated, garnished and put forward for the paparazzi.

Thanks to Chef Allemeier for a thorough and informative session; I felt inspired to try at least one of his complex dishes at home!

After the final session, we returned to the main reception hall for our farewell brunch. Talk about overindulgence – in addition to the dozen chafing dishes overflowing with breakfast and lunch favourites, there were omelette and carving stations to choose from.

Christmas in November

Omelette station

It was a good chance to wind down, and enjoy the last meal with those we had befriended over the weekend.

Sharon

My last Christmas in November meal!

As a whole, Christmas in November provided a great opportunity to get away from the city. No question, it’s a luxurious trip, but one that combines learning and food in a wonderful setting. I could see why it has been a formula that has been successful for twenty six years.

Mountain Sheep in Jasper

Wildlife in Jasper

It’s hard to argue against the option of a Friday to Sunday package, especially to accommodate those who could only take one day off work (myself included), but given we only had about two hours of “free time” not spent in sessions or in meals, if we returned, we would definitely opt for a three-day package. It was really only on Sunday afternoon after the last meal that Mack and I had the chance to go for a walk and enjoy the surrounding outdoors.

Jasper

One of the picturesque paths around the Jasper Park Lodge

Based on the current website, and the desire for the event to attract a younger demographic, I’d recommend organizers release a detailed presenter and session list in advance. For those unfamiliar with the quality of the event, it would be difficult to justify the expense without knowing the content of the sessions. Also, the one page in the program that listed the names of the presenters for each of the packages would have been a great summary to refer to online – although information on each presenter was available, it was cumbersome to navigate.

It was also not clear to us beforehand just how much food and drink would be included over the weekend. The evenings featured free flowing alcohol (wine and sponsored spirits), and we were never in want of food. Between the lavish meals and the samples provided in the cooking sessions, it felt like we were eating non-stop. The extent of that value was definitely not apparent in the website description of the packages.

For small parties looking for a joint escape (like many of the ladies groups, stagettes or coworkers we encountered), Christmas in November is a timely way to do so before the season takes over with other engagements. The cost for an individual or couple would definitely have to be weighed against another similarly-priced trip to other destination, but as I’ve described over this series of posts, those who enjoy food and love to entertain will see the value for their dollar.

Christmas in November

Thanks for the memories, Jasper Park Lodge!

Thanks again to Gastropost for sponsoring a lovely weekend, allowing Mack and I to experience the magic of Christmas in November firsthand.

To learn about some of the other Christmas in November sessions, and for more recipes, check out the Gastropost CIN site.