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

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

Downtown Calgary

The view from their apartment

Sushi Club

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

Sushi Club

Interior (with incredible chalk art!)

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

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

Sushi Club

Odd cod

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

Sushi Club

Calamari jalapeño roll

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

Sushi Club

Hawaiian shrimp katsu rolls

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

Zoolights @ the Calgary Zoo

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

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

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

Pit stop

Zoolights @ Calgary Zoo

One of the indoor greenhouses (aka warming places)

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

Zoolights @ Calgary Zoo

Annie and Andres in lovers lane

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

Zoolights @ Calgary Zoo

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

Zoolights @ Calgary Zoo

Swinging monkeys

Zoolights @ Calgary Zoo

Pet giraffes

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

Zoolights @ Calgary Zoo

Top of the evening to you

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

Vendome Cafe

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

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

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

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

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

Vendome Cafe

Open faced sandwich

Vendome Cafe

Blue crab eggs benedict

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

Devonian Gardens

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

Devonian Gardens

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

Devonian Gardens

Koi

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

Devonian Gardens

Water feature

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

Devonian Gardens

Love the living wall

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

A Tourist in Calgary

Most people would scoff at the idea of an Edmontonian visiting Calgary as a tourist, but I am not one of them. I think it is possible to be a tourist even in one’s home city; to me, being a tourist is a state of mind, being open and ready for new experiences and trials, and exploring the familiar in a different way.

As such, I don’t find our southern neighbour to be as pedestrian as some do, because besides the plethora of culinary excitements (to be blogged about shortly), there are numerous everyday sites worth visiting.

Stephen Avenue is one example. My stroll on Saturday yielded many (window) shopping opportunities, as well as a sneaky Kodak moment involving hungry bridesmaids on break from a streetside photoshoot.

“Hot dogs for everybody!”

I also ended up at Art Central (100 7 Avenue SW), though just after many of the shops had closed for the day. Opened in November 2004, the building houses a number of boutiques offering everything from art pieces to jewelry and clothing. A cafe on the top floor looked like a cozy reprieve from the traffic outside.

Art house

My personal favourite stop in the downtown core was the Devonian Gardens, housed in TD Square (317 7 Avenue SW).

Devonian Gardens

Packed with tourists and more than a few locals, the Gardens are an urban sanctuary, very similar to a visit to the Muttart Conservatory (but for free!). There is a playground for children, paths to stroll, soothing water fixtures to relax to, and benches to snack on. It took me a moment to realize that the turtles in the fish pond were real, adorably craning their necks towards the heat lamps. My sister thinks it odd that the greenhouse is situated just above a shopping centre, adjacent to office towers, but I think the designers were spot on in their placement choice – it provides an easy escape from the hustle and bustle of the business and retail worlds, a quiet place to have lunch or meditate, and in the winter, a means to maintain daily physical activity in the face of ice and snow.

Inside the gardens

 

Cascading fountain

Turtles!

Waterfall

Flowers

Reflecting Pond (open in the summer only)

The Gardens will be closing for 18 months starting on October 1, 2008 to undergo renovations (not unlike Edmonton’s Muttart) – so plan to stop by soon if you’re in the city for one last indoor walk.

With the escalating price of gas, I’m not sure how often I’ll be able to get away to Calgary, but if and when I do, I know the sights I would like to return to!