MoCupcakes, No Problem!

The manliest cupcake. Does that sound like a contradiction? I wasn’t sure what to expect when asked to be a judge in the MoCupcakes event that took place at Transcend Garneau last Monday, but it sure sounded like it would be a tasty task.

MoCupcakeYEG

Cupcakes galore!

MoCupcakes is one event in the Movember arsenal to help raise awareness of and funds to fight prostate cancer, a disease that 1 in 6 men will be diagnosed with in their lifetime. Although the campaign has been around for a few years (yes, it is the reason for the unsightly moustaches seen in November), 2010 has been the most successful year by far, having raised over $800,000, contributing to the over $20 million raised in Canada.

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Demistache

So, why cupcakes? Well, why not? From the MoCupcakes website:

Why not combine an iconic feminine baked delight  “cupcakes” and mash it up with a historically masculine cause that is changing the face of men’s health?

Jas Darrah was the mastermind behind Edmonton MoCupcakes, soliciting six bakers and five judges to determine the city’s manliest cupcake. The team at Transcend (who were also growing ‘staches for the cause), were generous enough to donate the venue, with staff agreeing to work on their own time when the shop closed for the night. Bravo.

MoCupcakeYEG

Jas explains the rules

Each of the six competitors were given an opportunity to describe their creation to the crowd, knowing that the name and explanation of their cupcake would be worth 10 out of the possible 30 points (10 additional points were awarded for the look, and the last 10 for taste).

MoCupcakeYEG

Jerry introduces his cupcake

Bacon enthusiast Jerry Aulenbach did not disappoint – his Cheddar Bacon Mo-fin with a chocolate ganache was a play on sweet and savoury flavours. But he even had bacon-less versions for those needing a kosher cupcake!

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Cheddar Bacon Mo-Fin

Although Ailynn Santos of Whimsical Cupcakes wasn’t on hand for the presentations, her box of “Big Poppa” cupcakes were accompanied with an explanation that the moustachioed cupcake featured a spice base and root beer frosting. The straw cigarette was a nice touch.

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Big Poppa

The cupcakes from Upper Crust were about twice the size of the others, and gorgeously showcased Edmonton’s most popular professional sports teams – right down to an Oilers decal made of icing and a football constructed from a chocolate-covered almond.

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Sports-themed cupcakes

Transcend’s own Chad Moss offered a Chocolate Beet-down Mo-cake, using his wife Thea’s recipe. Though he would not divulge whether or not bacon fat was added to the batter, his cupcake was made using local ingredients where possible.

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Chocolate Beet-down Mo-cake

Food blogger Chris Falconer offered his own interpretation of a cupcake with his Sunday Dinner Mancake, featuring a toasted bread crisp surrounding the ground beef, bacon and parmesan centre, then topped with a goat cheese mashed potato fondant and a maple sugar crisp. Talk about a dinner in cupcake form!

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Sunday Dinner Mancake

Last but certainly not least, Jas’s wife Linda Affolder presented her tool-belt wearing Stud Muffins – an encapsulation of men with their “strong chocolate exterior”, a shot of Guinness in the frosting, and a soft caramel centre. The fleur de sel sprinkling was icing on the cake.

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Stud Muffins

Alongside Kerry Powell, Ryan Jespersen, Seth Glick, and Nathan Box, we had the arduous task of assigning scores to each of the cupcakes. I know I was glad to have a rubric to fall back on.

MoCupcakeYEG

Cheers!

Who has the best milk moustache?

Nate means business!

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The judging

That said, Linda’s salty-sweet Stud Muffin was my personal favourite – the combination of the dark chocolate, caramel centre, and fleur de sel was just perfect, and made me wonder why the local cupcakeries aren’t already capitalizing on those flavours (Linda’s recipe can be found here).

MoCupcakeYEG

It’s a hard job, but somebody’s got to do it!

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The judging remnants (all taken home and finished later)

The winners, you ask? Chris’ savoury cupcake earned 125 out of a possible 150 points for third place.

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Chris and Sarah toy with their prize

Second place was awarded to Chad for his beet cupcake, who earned 132.5 points.

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Chad accepts his prize from Jas

And Linda, with 140.5 points, won first. She was unfailingly humble even then!

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Kerry bestows the feather boa to the MoCupcake champion

Thanks to Jas for organizing the event – it was great fun to be a part of! And a big thanks to the bakers for contributing their time and efforts to the cause.

Mack did an awesome job with the photos! You can see his entire photo set here.

Whimsical Cake Studio: Garneau Edition

have a soft spot for Whimsical Cake Studio (I have to stop myself from referring to them as “Whimsical Cupcakes” every time). Whimsical was one of the first full-time cupcake purveyors in the city, before the cupcake colonization of Whyte Avenue. It was also their cupcakes that initially drew me to the City Centre Market, where I now spend nearly every Saturday morning between May and October. Moreover, picking up a couple of their cupcakes was an annual tradition for a few years running, the perfect single-serving treat to help ring in a friend’s September birthday.

Whimsical Cake Studio at the City Centre Market

Edmonton’s cupcake landscape has changed in the past few years. Several home-based cupcake businesses have sprung up, as well as Flirt, The Cake Studio, and two locations of Fuss. Whimsical Cake Studio was tucked for several years in the suburban recesses of Riverbend, where I only had the opportunity to visit once, but this month, they moved into their renovated, more visible location right next to the Garneau Theatre (the best news about their move, besides the fact that combined with T2, daCapo, High Level Diner and the Sugar Bowl, among others, this little strip is a force to be reckoned with, is that a walkable cupcakery crawl is now possible!). Mack and I checked our their new digs over the weekend on our way home from the Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market.

Whimsical Cake Studio

It’s a bright and beautiful space, hues of sweet baby blue and cotton candy pink contrasting with the stalwart heritage brick. A small seating area with brightly coloured, albeit a haphazard collection, of lounge chairs occupies one side, right next to a sprinkle station (too cute). I love how customers are able to peer into the open bakery, between the racks of still-cooling and just-iced cupcakes. Prices are slightly cheaper than nearby cupcakeries ($2.75/cupcake vs. $2.95 and $16 for half a dozen).

Interior

Sprinkle station!

Cupcakes galore

We picked up four cupcakes to share with Mack’s Grandma later that night – raspberry, cookies and cream, Smarties and hazelnut chocolate. They hit the spot – moist and not too sweet, we all enjoyed them (I loved the addition of crushed Smarties on mine too – the extra crunch and pop of colour made it more fun to eat).

Our cupcake bounty

I’ll be back to Whimsical Cake Studio some time, most likely in combination with a coffee at daCapo or T2, or before a movie next door at Garneau. Note also that Whimsical is hosting their grand opening on April 17 – nothing says happiness like free cake samples!

Whimsical Cake Studio
8716 109 Street
(780) 988-2253
Monday 11am-5pm, Tuesday-Friday 10am-7pm, Saturday 10am-5pm

Value-priced Cupcakes: The Cake House

Though my homeward bound bus drops me off right around the corner from The Cake House, it took an after work need for pick-me-up sugar to finally gave me the push to walk through the shop’s doors.

Owner Silvia Salas has twenty years of baking experience. She spent a year working for Fuss Cupcakes, and this year, decided to branch out on her own – The Cake House has been open for about six months. Though her main focus is on special occasion cakes (customers come from as far away as Devon to order her 100% nut free creations), she also offers smaller cakes, pies and cupcakes.

The Cake House

Though the exterior of barred windows and functional interior aren’t as charming as the other cupcakeries like Flirt and Whimsical Cake Studio (plus, no seating area), Silvia’s warmth and friendliness makes up for it somewhat. More than that, the cupcakes are the most economical in the city – just $1.75 each, $10 for a half dozen, and $19.50 for a dozen.

There were more than a dozen flavours to choose from on my visit, including red velvet, oreo and caramel. I picked out French vanilla for myself, and a carrot cupcake for Mack. I brought them home, and couldn’t help but dig in right away – the cake base was moist and not too sweet, and while buttercream icing is not my favourite, I didn’t mind Silvia’s version as much – the super-creamy texture probably had something to do with it. Mack loved his cupcake as well, cinnamon spiced to perfection.

French Vanilla and Carrot Cupcakes

For the price, The Cake House offers very good value – worth checking out if you need a cupcake fix that won’t break the bank.

The Cake House
12415 – 107 Avenue
(780) 451-8882
Monday-Friday 10am-5:30pm, Saturday 10am-4pm

Day 5 in DC: Tourist Mashup

The muggiest day to greet us in DC was also our tardiest start, indicative of our exhaustion the night before. We finally left the hotel at 10:30, and determined to try an alternative to Starbucks, sought out the nearest location of Caribou Coffee.

With their wooden beams, hardwood floor and stone fireplace, it would have been easy to mistake the interior of Caribou Coffee with that of a Montana’s. There was no line-up (unlike our hotel’s neighbourhood Starbucks), and I liked the cheeky statements printed on the napkins. The coffee itself wasn’t bad, though drowned in milk as it were I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell otherwise.

 

A cabin or a coffee shop?

Our first planned stop for the day was the last of the major memorials we hadn’t yet seen – the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. At some point after we departed the Metro we must have made a wrong turn, because we ended up not at the memorial, but at a waterfront lined with seafood stalls.

Seafood market

Crabs galore!

The aromas drifting from the area weren’t exactly pleasant – seafood never fares well in open air on hot days. There was some agreeable cookery going on though – with “fresh” (trucked in) fish, crabs, and other shellfish being offered alongside lemonade and ice cream. We were able to sample some fried fish, which satisfied our seafood curiosity.

A man among fish

Across and under a bridge, we finally reached the Jefferson Memorial. Away from the Mall attractions, it was relatively quiet, and free from large school groups. Situated on the Tidal Basin as well, this memorial was in the perfect spot to capture breezes that came off the water. I’m sure cherry blossoms would add a touch of magic to the park, but even without them, the tree-lined area was lovely, and brought me back to the West Wing episode of “Mandatory Minimums” where Toby and Andie take their walk around the basin.

Jefferson Memorial

Jefferson, the primary author of the Constitution, was quite scholarly, making the Greek columns very appropriate for his memorial. Though the statues of Lincoln and Jefferson are apparently the same height, the Lincoln Memorial still trumps all others in grandness and impact.

Jefferson Memorial

We walked across the basin to spend the best $10 we had all trip – on paddleboats! The $10 secured a rental for an hour, which was more than enough time to explore the reachable corners of Tidal Basin, and to access one of the best frontal views of the Jefferson Memorial. And after rushing from place to place for the last few days, it was nice to kick back and relax out on the water.

Jefferson Memorial from Tidal Basin

Mack on the Berry (photo #2 – yes, even on the water)

Marines and POTUS helicopters flew overhead in the direction of the White House a few times, as did numerous domestic flights in and out of Reagan National Airport. The airspace in DC was undoubtedly always busy.

POTUS Helicopter overhead

Off the water, we took a quick ice cream break at one of the strategically-placed tourist-oriented confectionary traps, and hopped on the Metro to get to our lunch destination – Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street.

Our piecemeal day continued with a return to our hotel to change (a nod to our most formal dining experience in DC), then hoofed it to Georgetown. It was absolutely boiling at this point, so our trek was most uncomfortable for Mack, to say the least, dressed in a long-sleeve dress shirt. He was a trooper though, as we made the most of our time by shopping in the district, where I picked up some gifts at the lovely gift and stationary store Paper Source and elsewhere.

I heart Georgetown

A picturesque garden in the middle of Georgetown

A Georgetown shopping centre

We made sure to stop at Dean and Deluca, which in Georgetown was not only a café, but a full-on specialty grocer. We overturned many products to find astronomical prices, and contented ourselves with two rounded D & D mugs, which we had admired from afar in New York.

Dean & Deluca

Not a wine cellar, but hall

Bulk candies are always more expensive when stored in glass jars

On Bruce’s recommendation, we also visited Georgetown Cupcake, where the line-up was out the door. Granted, the tiny storefront could only contain so many, but given the number of large boxes waiting to be picked up, we were sure that walk-in customers formed only a tiny branch of their business.

They had a dozen varieties to choose from, all temptingly displayed on tiered stands at the order counter. After patrons put in their order, they had to pass the funds across to the staff person on the other side of the tiers, creating an awkward exchange for both parties (and a potentially messy one, even though a sign read that ‘cakes on display were indeed for display only).

Cupcakes!

At $2.75 a pop, the cupcakes seemed to be on par or slightly more expensive than the Canadian bakeries I have visited. I decided on a fairly classic flavour – vanilla² – while Mack opted for something a little less run-of-the-mill – carrot cake.

On the corner of Georgetown and cupcake

The vanilla bean cake was pretty tasty – flavoured and flecked nicely, but with sweetness in check. I was saddened to find that the icing was made with cream cheese, however, as I am not a fan. On the other hand, the cream cheese base did mean that the icing didn’t melt as fast as its, say, buttercream counterparts, and as Mack adores cream cheese, he unsurprisingly enjoyed his treat more than I did.

We ended the night at dinner – an upscale restaurant called Hook.

You can read Mack’s Day 5 recap here.

Food Notes for June 29, 2009

  • Connect2Edmonton asked me to write a guest column about food. I came up with a piece about an Edmonton “dining passport”. Thanks for the opportunity, C2E!
  • Liane posted on her blog that Bistro Praha, which was heavily damaged in the Ramsay Building fire, will be relocating to Tower II of the Icon Tower.
  • From Chris’s blog – there’s a new cupcake store that opened on June 27: Cake Couture (15008 87 Avenue, 780-709-1682). While I’m sure Edmonton can support the growing number of cupcake boutiques, one has to wonder why no one has situated a bakery in downtown Edmonton, where office workers may wander in for an afternoon pick-me-up, and custom orders would presumably be in high demand.
  • The Culina Family of restaurants finally launched their new website, complete with a rebranding of Passa Tempo, which is now BiBO. The site has the option for each restaurant to have a blog, but we will see if if the promise for content holds true.
  • The Taste of Edmonton, which runs July 17-26, have released their menus. It’s nice to see some new restaurants participating (Padmanadi, The Hat), but given other great sample events that are more economical and serve higher quality food, I have to seriously think about spending my dollar at Churchill.
  • Michael Pollan was at UBC last week speaking at a fundraising event to help protect the UBC farmland from residence expansion. The event was followed up by a tasting featuring local produce and ingredients.
  • Via the blog Eat. Drink. Better., a link to the recent bylaw passed in Toronto that will require buildings of a certain size to have either a green or a cool roof. So progressive – who knew I’d be applauding Toronto?
  • When I interviewed Rob Feenie back in February, I asked him about the possibility of sourcing local ingredients. He said it might be possible, working with a local producer. Well, Chipotle, a popular Mexican chain based in the U.S., is doing it on a large scale, and has made a commitment to purchase at least 25% of one ingredient from small or mid-size farms within 200 miles of their 760 stores in the country. I didn’t think such a shift would be logistically possible – bravo to them for making the effort.
  • Mack sent me an article from the Boston Globe about the proliferation of restaurants using Twitter as a vehicle for publicity and interaction with customers. C’mon, Edmonton restaurants – jump on the bandwagon!
  • I had seen a sandwich board advertising a new “Indian fusion” restaurant – I didn’t know that the name of the restaurant was actually Indian Fusion (10322 111 Street, 780-752-5500).

 

Indian Fusion: The Curry House

  • My family received our order of 1/4 of a cow this past week, which worked out to 183lbs. We immediately dug into our steak stash – when Mack took his first bite, he commented, “it tastes organic,” haha. I don’t think my palate can make that distinction, but it was pretty darn good steak.

 

Mack’s steak and potato

  • My coworkers surprised me with a giant cupcake from Flirt last week to help me celebrate my birthday! I suspected nothing, even when one of my coworkers asked several questions relating to cupcake boutiques in the city. I am happy to report that it was delicious – the icing wasn’t overly sweet, and several coworkers commented that the cake had a nice texture. Thanks, guys!

 

The first super-sized cupcake Flirt has ever made

Sweets on Whyte: Fuss Cupcakes and Coney Island Candy

After a quick trip through the always bustling Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market, we had some time to kill on Whyte before a matinee play, so we took the time to visit a few new additions to the neighbourhood.

An article in the Journal on Saturday pointed to the recent cupcake explosion on Whyte Ave – Flirt Cupcakes opened their doors in February, and Fuss Cupcakes followed with an Old Strathcona outpost that opened this past Wednesday. I have been pretty impressed by Flirt so far (I like their online ordering system, and their beautiful pink gift boxes), but to be fair, having met and interviewed the proprietors probably lends some bias in their direction.

Fuss has been in cupcake business at their flagship west end location (17298 Stony Plain Road) for nearly three years, and was originally known as The Cupcake Bakeshoppe & Cafe. I visited back in the fall of 2006, and was less than impressed with the cupcake – it had been refrigerated (a cupcake faux pas in my book), and the icing tasted artificial. I hadn’t been back to give them a second chance, which probably had more to do with their location than anything else, but was eager to see if they had improved their cupcakes during my time away.

Fuss Cupcakes interior

Fuss sets themselves apart from Flirt primarily by their distinction as being the only “nut free” cupcake bakery in the city, and by offering a large eat-in space. In addition to their cupcakes, Fuss also offers specialty coffees, teas, and floats. Branded merchandise was on sale, including this cheeky shirt:

“Legalize Frostitution!”

There were handy color postcards next to the counter, listing the sixteen standard cupcake varieties offered daily. For the Mother’s Day long weekend, Fuss was offering an additional strawberry and chocolate ganache special.

Order counter

I have to say Flirt does a better job with making their cupcakes look attractive to the customer – while Fuss definitely seemed to have an edge on ensuring a healthy supply of all flavours, I found their fluorescent-lit display a bit sterile and as Mack noted, made the cupcakes seem mass-produced.

Cupcakes

At $2.95 a pop. Fuss shares Flirt’s price point per cupcake. We decided to get one each (to be consumed while waiting in line at the theatre) – The Diva (strawberry icing) for me, and The Flawless Carat (carrot cake with cream cheese icing) for Mack.

Our cupcakes

The clear clamshell definitely loses out to Flirt’s recyclable packaging, and Mack didn’t like that the cupcake wasn’t firmly held in its place, rolling around as we walked. We both really liked the moist and airy cake however (and I was happy to find that they were at room temperature). Mack’s carrot base had a nice cinnamon aroma throughout, while my vanilla cake had just the right amount of flavour. The icing-to-cake ratio was something to be desired though. Mack liked the icing, and said it was less sweet than Flirt. I found it all right, but as someone who would choose something other than buttercream every time, that was no surprise.

It will be interesting to see how the “cupcake war” plays out as the months get warmer, and each shop experiences a fair bit of foot traffic from both tourists and regulars alike.

Our next stop was Coney Island Candy (10345 82 Avenue), a shop we wouldn’t have seen had it not been for the sandwich board on the sidewalk.

Coney Island Candy

It’s a shop for the visual sense, that’s for sure, filled with fun carney-inspired posters and bright displays reminiscent of the 1920s midway at Fort Edmonton Park.

Interior

The shop steps in to fill the void left when Carol’s Quality Sweets was forced to relocate after the fire on Whyte Ave. With over 500 varieties of candy (continuously being added to), including over 200 bulk options, Coney Island is a kid’s dream.

Even better, Coney Island also stocks novelties perfect for gift giving – I’m sure I could have spent more time peering at the various displays, but I did spy bacon mints and bacon floss – the perfect present for any bacon lover.

Open since March, I’m sure Coney Island will continue to draw in the young, and the young at heart.

Fuss Cupcakes
10441 82 Avenue NW
(780) 761-3877

Coney Island Candy
10345 82 Avenue
(780) 438-9003

Food Notes for February 17, 2009

  • If you missed it, I’m organizing a meetup for Edmonton foodies. Join us at the Blue Plate Diner on February 26 at 6:30pm if you’re interested in meeting some of the people behind the city’s food blogs! Just remember to include your name on the wiki before February 22.
  • The list of participating restaurants in Edmonton’s 6th annual Downtown Dining Week, which runs March 6-15,  is up, though menus have yet to be posted. Calgary’s event, which runs March 9-15, will be making their list public on Thursday. I have to say I am way more excited for the latter.
  • Thanks to a comment from Jim and Loosen Your Belt and Eat Around Edmonton, I now know that the Whyte Avenue cupcake store just east of Gateway Boulevard, Flirt Cupcakes, is now open. They charge, for the record, $2.95 a cupcake. Apparently the one next to Funky Pickle is also open – anyone know what it is called?
  • Liane Faulder had the opportunity to interview New York Times columnist Mark Bittman last week about his new book, Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating. I’m interested in the recipes included – apparently over 75 of them.
  • New labelling regulations for organic products sold in Canada will commence June 30: “under the new federal regulations, only products with organic content greater than 95 per cent can be labelled organic, and use the new logo from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Foodstuffs with at least 70 per cent organic content can call themselves ‘organic products,’ but cannot use the logo.”
  • Max Satanove, of “Max’s Food Basket” fame (a weekly instalment that compared common grocery products) passed away on January 27. Foodie Suz wrote about his contributions here.
  • Todd Babiak wrote an interesting article about the ubiquitous presence of television screens in the city’s restaurants. I know I don’t mind them, but then again, it definitely marks the establishment as one that’s less than formal.
  • Dickson’s on vacation in Asia, and among other things, has stumbled upon some erm, interesting theme restaurants in Taiwan. One was a hospital-themed one, with waitresses dressed in nursing uniforms serving mystery concoctions to guests from plastic syringes. No, you read that correctly.
  • Starbucks’ latest cash grab: instant coffee called VIA Ready Brew. Why, Howard Schultz, why?
  • Eater’s series called “To Catch a Critic” (which strives to obtain photographs of New York’s top restaurant reviewers) makes me laugh. It makes me wonder if any Edmonton establishments ever had a photo of Judy Schultz posted up in their kitchen, heh.
  • I had a quick lunch at Caffe Sorrentino (10665 109 Street) last week. Talk about fast food – by the time I sat down, my slice of mostly hot lasagne ($8.50) was brought to me – it made me wonder if they microwaved it. They scrimped on the cheese, and tried to hide this by doling out extra sauce, but it was definitely noticeable. With the large windows and coffee bar, the cafe provides a nice atmosphere, but food-wise, they’re a bit weak.

 

Lasagne from Caffe Sorrentino

Food Notes for February 9, 2009

  • Late reporting on a number of restaurant closures, from Chowhound – The Mill (8109 101 Street) is now Maki-Maki, which is offering 10% off for the month of February, La Tapa (10523 99 Avenue) closed at the end of last year, and Grandma D’s BBQ Cookhouse (16336 111 Avenue) early in January. Churros King (10152A 82 Avenue) also closed, to be replaced by a cupcake store (see below).
  • Speaking of cupcakes, Whimsical Cupcakes will be offering cupcake and cake decorating classes.
  • The Journal reviewed Savour Divino on Saturday, and gave it a positive rating. The restaurant is hosting an open house and gala on February 10 at 5:30pm.
  • The Globe awarded Daniel Boulud’s incarnation of Lumiere in Vancouver a glowing review last week.
  • If anyone were to make me Twitter more, it would be Ruth Reichl.
  • This site will either make you hungry or want to hurl.
  • And onto thoughtfully-prepared food, via Urban Diner, AnnaTheRed’s beautiful bento boxes, including my favourite – a Wall-E inspired sandwich and a farm scene.
  • This is a cute way of seeing what to eat that’s in season in New York – a local foods wheel. Alberta has a Savour Regional Flavour Seasonal Fresh Food Guide, but it’s really not the same.
  • On a dinner break at the food security conference a week ago, I headed to Quan’s Cafe (11148 142 Street NW) across the street for a bite to eat. It turns out they are only open for take-out from 4-6pm, so I had to grab my pho and eat, inconspicuously in a coffee shop. It was to determine from styrofoam containers whether or not the soup is worth returning for (particularly because their hours of operation are so tight), but I do like the interior at the very least.

 

Quan’s Cafe interior

  • Has anyone else ever had the fruit flan from Sunterra? I heart the chocolate-coated shortbread crust so light, it almost tastes like a meringue.

 

Fruit Flan from Sunterra

  • Very Eater of us, but we couldn’t resist taking a photo of the exterior of the “CUPCAKES coming soon” sign (in the location that formerly housed Churros King in Old Strathcona). It’s really about time a cupcakes store made it to Whyte Avenue – Calgary’s 17th Avenue equivalent has two, maybe more. Mack’s photo even made it onto Cupcakes Takes the Cake!

 

Coming soon!

Weekend in Calgary

Bettina and I had talked in the spring about a weekend trip to Calgary, but due to various factors including work and vacation, we weren’t able to align our schedules until August.

On Friday afternoon, I hopped on an express Red Arrow coach to meet up with Bettina. I haven’t yet had the opportunity to talk about them before, so I will seize this platform now – I would strongly encourage anyone needing transportation south to consider taking the bus. Besides the free snacks and beverages, the coaches are clean, efficient, and often come with unforeseen bonuses (like wireless internet access!). Fares are reasonable ($63.60 one way), and the downtown Calgary drop off point is conveniently just a few blocks away from a C-Train stop.

After arriving, Bettina’s Aunt was nice enough to drive us to the hotel so I could drop off my bag. Our accommodation for night one was the Hampton Inn in NW Calgary.

Our room at the Hampton Inn

It doesn’t look like much, but I was quite impressed with our suite. Equipped with a fridge and a microwave, as well as a DVD player, the room would have definitely allowed for a comfortable multi-night stay should we have needed it. Moreover, the included continental breakfast the next morning was extremely generous, or what I would call “Contiki-plus”: in addition to the requisite cereal, fruit, and coffee, they offered a variety of healthy and sweet carb choices and hot sausage patties (so bad, but so good). I’m not sure why accommodations matter so much to me, particularly when the backbones of my getaways are sightseeing and not sleeping, but I suppose it has to do with being able to live at the border of one’s means when away from home.

For dinner, we explored our options on Stephen Avenue. We did pass by Blink Supper Club, but the $30+ entree price scared us away.

Stephen Avenue (and a reflection of the Calgary Tower)

We ended up in the familiar Milestone’s (107 8th Avenue SE). Bettina selected her favorite California spring salad (baby greens, mild goat cheese, fresh sliced strawberries, red onion and spicy-glazed pecans) while after some agony, I chose the butternut squash ravioli (Roma tomato sauce, goat cheese, fresh basil, spicy-glazed pecans). The food arrived surprisingly quick. The dressing on Bettina’s salad was unfortunately much too strong, and I didn’t appreciate the fact that my pasta appeared to be swimming in olive oil. Besides the grease factor, however, I thoroughly enjoyed the ravioli filling – the squash was creamy and complemented well by the tomato sauce. I’m still not a fan of goat cheese, particularly because it unfailingly dries out dishes, but I’m slowly learning not to be deterred by its presence.

Butternut squash ravioli
California spring salad

The next morning after breakfast, we left the Hampton and secured our luggage at our next hotel, as it was too early to check in. We then took the C-Train to the trendy neighbourhood of Kensington, home of decor, gift, and clothing boutiques a la Whyte Avenue, but decidedly more laid back and low-key. My only real point of interest on this sojourn was to visit Crave (1107 Kensington Road NW).

Bettina decides between the lesser of several evils

Having hit Buttercream Bake Shoppe the last time I was in the city, I wanted to cross the other cupcake bakery off of my list. We actually passed right by Crave when we wandered down Kensington Road, as the storefront itself isn’t very eye-catching. When we reached the store, it was bustling with customers, seemingly regulars who needed their fix of upscale baked goods. Bettina and I decided to split a half dozen (with each cupcake working out to just under $2.50 each). My picks included The Princess, Crave-O-Licious and Nutty Over Chocolate. I was most curious about the latter, wanting to compare it to Ina Garten’s similar recipe. Crave’s version of the icing was much sweeter (indicative of more confectioner’s sugar added), but the cake itself was rather bland. Bettina mainly couldn’t get over the intense amount of butter used for the icing, but I didn’t mind; it’s not often I indulge in cupcakes!

Our half dozen – almost too pretty to eat!
Getting Nutty Over Chocolate

We did our best to walk off the calories on our way back downtown, in search of #2 on my to-do list: Avenue Diner (105 8th Avenue SW). I was keen to compare it to Diner Deluxe, the absolutely fabulous 50s inspired diner I had brunch at in January, particularly after reading nothing but positive reviews about the restaurant.

As you’re probably well-aware, I’m very picky when it comes to my diners, and I will admit to requiring this genre of eatery to conform to my personal vision of what a “diner” should be. Being a (somewhat) reasonable person, I know that such standards are really unfair, but as it is a bias I take with me, I am mentioning it upfront.

Avenue is essentially a modern incarnation of a diner, and I mean this not necessarily in a bad sense. It is clean, well-lit, equipped with a characteristic barstool countertop as well as a sleek banquet at the rear of the restaurant, making the most of a lengthy room. The black and white photographs lining the near-grey walls and molded red stools emulate a sort of upscale chicness devoid of a warmth that I associate with the word “diner”. Even the eye-catching portrait of their in-house macaroni and cheese screamed more gallery than Mum’s kitchen.

That said, the service was excellent throughout, and the cranberry and lemon slice in each of our water glasses was a whimsical touch. The menu featured the expected variety of omelets, breakfast carbs and sandwiches. I opted for the quiche special, served with Yukon Gold hash browns and fruit salad, while Bettina ordered the spinach salad (with spiced pecans, sun dried cranberries and vanilla-apple dressing).

The quiche itself was a mixed bag – the pesto-marinated portabello mushrooms were absolutely divine, but the “Missing Link” chicken sausage slices were surprisingly, and disappointingly dry. It would be an understatement to say Bettina didn’t enjoy her salad, finding the dressing much too bland, and near flavourless. Would I return to Avenue? Perhaps only if the wait for Diner Deluxe was unmanageably long.

Tempting artwork
Restaurant interior
Quiche with Yukon Gold hash browns and fruit salad
Spinach salad

After lunch, we did some shopping in the downtown area to kill some time before being able to check into our hotel. Funny how I used to really enjoy shopping in Calgary, but after being exposed to so many new labels and stores in Europe, even the skylit Eaton Centre wasn’t that exciting.

A few odd purchases later, we were ready to check out our accommodation for the night. The Westin Calgary (320 4th Avenue SW) had been renovated recently in June, even installing a Starbucks in the lobby (I seem to be able to magically gravitate towards the coffee giant without even knowing it). While the lobby was still under construction, the rooms themselves still retained the sheen of a facelift (is there a “new room” smell?). It’s probably the nicest room I’ve ever stayed in – besides their signature Heavenly Bed, the room also featured a flat panel television and free in-room Starbucks coffee(!). Moreover, as we were in a business suite, we were allowed unlimited long distance phone calls within North America, as well as a $19 credit for the hotel’s restaurant. On a side note, it’s interesting how both the Westin and the Hampton Inn now have the option for patrons to create a hotel atmosphere at home by purchasing furnishings and items of comfort online (my favorite is the curved shower rod). I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before these sites offer wedding registries so newlyweds can extend that honeymoon feeling all the way back home.

Our suite at the Westin

While it seems like all we did was eat that weekend, food in other cities is always a major attraction for me, so I couldn’t pass up a trip to Taste of Calgary, taking place at Eau Claire Market (202, 200 Barclay Parade SW).

The crowds at Taste of Calgary (the Calgary Herald reported attendance of 60,000 to their event compared with Edmonton’s supposed 600,000. Really?)
Starbucks van (they were selling samples of Blueberries and Creme Frappuccino and Blueberry White Iced Tea for 1 ticket each)

When I say the event “took place” at Eau Claire, that’s a bit deceiving – the booths were actually arranged rather haphazardly in the building’s parking lot. Besides making sure not to trip over the concrete blocks on the pavement, the layout of the vendors did not allow for easy browsing of options available. While Churchill Square might be a cramped venue, Eau Claire was actually worse.

The food, however, was worth the visit. My opinion is based partly on the “newness” of the menu to my palate, but I think their choices were not only better than our festival, but cheaper too (tickets were priced at 75 cents to Edmonton’s dollar). The portions were larger, and some vendors even put some thought into the presentation of their dishes (paper cone-wrapped crepes for convenient stand-up snacking and mini-Chinese take-out boxes sure beat paper plates). Curiously, drinks took up over a third of the menu, with servings of beer, wine and liqueurs offered for 2 to 3 tickets each.

With my ten tickets, I had to be frugal with my selections, and ended up with a serving of butter chicken from Bombay Palace and a Bow Valley bison burger from Brewsters. Both were excellent. Bettina ended up with a burger as well, but not before she tried a BBQ beef rib from Graze Grill, home of “The Big One”: a five pound sirloin steak. For the gastronomically-inclined, finishing the $99 steak within the hour results in a free meal and a place on their wall of fame. Any takers?

Butter chicken
Bow Valley bison burger
BBQ beef rib

We spent the rest of the evening walking the nearby trails.

Urban soccer (it reminded me of a picture I took in Paris)
Bettina plays tourist

Our Sunday morning breakfast at Essence, the Westin’s restaurant, wasn’t spectacular. And though our credit helped, my $15 omelet put us over our allowance.

We then met up with Bettina’s Aunt, who drove us to an off-leash park for a walk with their Bernese Mountain Dog Hemingway and his many (large) furry friends. I’ve never seen so many massive dogs in one place before.

Hemingway (all 120 pounds of him)
Seriously massive dogs
The scenery of the Elbow River valley below and the skyline of downtown Calgary in the distance was nice to see, especially because it seems I rarely escape the trappings of city living when traveling.
Skyline
Valley
Pathway
Us
Surprise, surprise – we followed up our outdoor excursion with a dim sum lunch at Forbidden City in Pacific Place (220, 999 36 Street NE). I wouldn’t normally single out Chinese restaurants, but the portions were abnormally generous here. For example, the plate of rice crepes was double the size what any Edmonton restaurant would serve at a similar price range. Highly recommended.
We C-Trained to Chinook Mall for a quick look around, and then it was back downtown to pick up our bags. This was my first extended brush with the C-Train system, and I must admit that I am pretty impressed with its reach of many parts of the city.
For one last hurrah, we sat down for a quick treat at Fiasco Gelato (807 1 Street SW) – the chocolate hazlenut Tartufo was delicious.
Yum! (the Tartufo was underneath the raspberry sorbetto)
Back to the Red Arrow bus station (after some SE and SW misdirection), and we were home before we knew it. It was a very full weekend.

Whimsical Cupcakes: the Store

This really doesn’t deserve an entire post on its own, but I don’t think I can hold onto this announcement until I have enough material for a “Tidbits” entry.

Whimsical Cake Studio, of Downtown Farmer’s Market fame, is opening up its store on Friday, June 15! Located at 14910-45 Avenue, grand opening festivities will be taking place some time in mid-July. Having sampled cupcakes from Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver, I can confidently say that Whimsical offers some of the best treats available in both Alberta and BC.

Needless to say, I’m craving a cupcake right now…