Edmonton Opera Brunch: “Les Contes d’Hoffmann”

Two Sundays ago Mack and I were invited as guests to attend Edmonton Opera’s Opera Brunch for its upcoming mainstage production of Les Contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffman). Though we’ve attended the opera and related events before (most recently, Storm the Stage last fall), this was our first time attending an event that would introduce us, in recital format, to the artists that would be performing in the show.

Held in one of the banquet rooms at the Sutton Place Hotel, we were told that the buffet brunch would feature some dishes inspired by the production – namely, the circus setting where this production of Hoffman takes place. We were looking forward to seeing what the kitchen had in store.

Opera Brunch

Table setting

The first few chafing dishes revealed some summer fair favourites, including soft pretzels, corn dogs, fries and popcorn. But for those who wanted more traditional breakfast and lunch dishes, there was an overwhelming amount to choose from, ranging from eggs benedict, sausages and bacon to cold salads, roast chicken and perogies.

Opera BrunchOpera Brunch

It became obvious that some items fared better than others in the chafing dishes – the scrambled eggs remained fluffy and light, while poached eggs became overcooked, for example. The throwback to circus fare was also a mixed bag – we weren’t convinced the kitchen handmade the pretzels (and if they had, why wouldn’t they have sized them down into half or quarter portions?), while the corn dogs were of the Pogo variety. I have to say the kitchen disappointed me that day – given we were told the food would be connected to the opera’s theme, I didn’t expect these feature dishes to come from a box.

Opera Brunch

Mack’s plate

The service staff, on the other hand, were fabulous from beginning to end. We started out the morning with a mimosa (the champagne was topped up generously), and the coffee kept on coming.

The performances began about an hour into the event. We would be treated to a total of ten songs, as well as some words from the Director, Designer and Maestro of Hoffman.

Opera is often said to be pretentious, or at least inaccessible. Part of that is the language of opera, to be sure, but part of it too may be the physical distance between the players and the audience. Compared with a smaller, more intimate theatre production, it can be more difficult to connect with the performers. For me, the Opera Brunch helped erase some of that distance.

Opera Brunch

Teiya Kasahara dashed into the audience

Each of the ten artists chose to sing a song of their choosing, and many of them, surprisingly, were in English – no need for supertitles here! Before starting their song, they provided the audience with a bit of context (the scene preceding the song, the general storyline of the opera), so we were able to understand the character’s frame of mind, or the humour in the lyrics. What amazed me, sitting so close to the stage, was seeing the theatricality of the performers; their physical transformation into the character as soon as the music began – a hunch, a scowl – was a subtlety that sitting in the rafters at the Jubilee, I would never have noticed. And I don’t think anyone will disagree that the finale from Hoffman himself, David Pomeroy, who performed “Danny Boy”, was so wrought with emotion that there were more than a few handkerchiefs out at its conclusion.

Opera Brunch

Krisztina Szabo on stage

We also relished the opportunity to find out more about Hoffman, from the words of those working on it behind the scenes. The passion from Director Joel Ivany in particular was evident, as he described the difference between opera in North America and in Europe – in the former, it is presented as entertainment, in the latter, it is discussed and debated in the culture pages. As Ivany shared his vision for the opera, it convinced us that we should go and see Hoffman – I’m curious to see how the opera manifests itself.

All told, the Opera Brunch was the best Edmonton Opera event I’ve ever attended. We were able to learn more about the forthcoming production, get to know the artists a bit more and listen to some wonderful music, all in an informal setting. I know the EO has tried to target a younger audience with the Explorer’s Club and Storm the Stage, but I think the framework of this event, transposed into an evening wine and cheese, would do more to help those 18-35 connect with opera.

Thanks again to Edmonton Opera for the invitation!

Les Contes d’Hoffmann runs at the Jubilee Auditorium on February 1, 3, 5 and 7, 2013.

Service No Man’s Land: Sutton Place Hotel

I’ve written positively before about the Christmas buffet offered at the Sutton Place Hotel (10235 101 Street), so count me as surprised when a recent visit to their twice-weekly Chocoholics Buffet turned out to be a less-than-stellar experience.

Janice wanted to check out the dessert event as part of her birthday night out, and May, Annie and myself were more than happy to oblige. $16 per person seemed a small amount to pay for the right to gorge out on a variety of chocolate sweets, especially when the price included an alcoholic beverage.

We knew from the website that the buffet was open from 5-10pm, so we had a relatively large window to make it down there. After a bite to eat at Lazia, we walked over to Sutton Place and headed straight for the main floor lounge, where the buffet was supposed to be set up.

There is apparently live jazz to accompany the buffet on the last Thursday of every month. That really would seem to be the best time to visit, as the ambiance was lacking that night – the only music we could hear drifted down from the restaurant proper a floor above us, just barely overshadowing the natural buzz of a hotel lobby. The lounge itself was also extremely dim – there were a few peripheral lamps that did their best to make up for a lack of overhead lights, but we found ourselves wishing for a tabletop candle or two.

We hoped the food would make up for the aesthetics of the lounge, and the spread looked quite promising. There were over ten varieties of desserts, including cheesecake, creme puffs, chocolate shooters, a brownie pizza, and a mousse cake. A silver vessel also contained warm chocolate to drizzle over fruit, but best of all, they had a staff member available to make crepes. And like vegetarian entrees on steakhouse menus, they did have a few non-chocolate desserts, including a plain vanilla cake.

Chocoholics Buffet spread

We found a table and waited a few minutes for one of the two waitresses to acknowledge our presence, but our patience waned. At some point, we decided to be proactive and simply load up our table with plates, hoping that might alert the staff that we needed some assistance.

Crepes were up first for all of us. Kim, the chef on hand, provided a nice personal touch to the experience. We asked her about how busy the buffet was on a typical evening, as there was only one other customer dining alongside our group, and she said that during a busy period (such as CFR week), around 7-10 patrons would frequent the buffet. That seemed to me like an awfully low number (particularly if such busy swings were few and far between) for the Sutton Place to continue to offer such a spread twice weekly. She assured me that the food didn’t go to waste, and as employees were given a three-course meal after every shift, that all of the leftovers would be consumed by staff.

Kim busy behind her station

Back to the crepes – once she folded over the crepe, we were able to choose from a variety of sweet and savoury toppings. I decided to add strawberries, chocolate, and sliced almonds to my chewy crepe. It was quite good, and knowing we could go back for seconds and thirds was a reassuring thought.

My personalized crepe

We tackled the main dessert table next, and I attempted to taste a little piece of everything. After careful deliberation (and three plates), I decided I liked the flourless chocolate cake the best. It was moist, the texture was just right, and though it was fairly rich, I appreciated the dense chocolate flavour. The chocolate-dipped strawberries came in a close second.

Plate #2

After we had returned to our table with our first “courses”, the waitress did come to take our drink order. When asked if they had any dessert wine, she told us that we should be drinking a less sweet wine so as to not take away from the desserts. I would be the first to admit that I am by no means a wine snob, but all of us at the table knew that she was wrong. She poured us all a white wine, which ended up being quite nice, but we were off-put by her initial error.

The service didn’t improve over the evening, as by the end of our stay, just one waitress was left in the area. We actually felt really bad for her – I’m sure the short staffing was a product of the boom – but it made our experience less noteworthy on a positive level.

While the buffet is a good deal, and those who like chocolate should definitely look into it, don’t expect to get more out of it than a meal to satisfy your sweet tooth.

Us, ten pounds heavier

Sutton Place Hotel
10235 – 101 Street
(780) 428-7111 
Chocoholics Buffet every Thursday and Friday, 5-10pm

Christmas Buffet: Sutton Place Hotel

This afternoon, my organization held it’s annual holiday party. As was the case last year, our lunch was held in one of the meeting rooms in the Sutton Place Hotel (10235-101 Street), with access to the Grande Ballroom where the main buffet was set up.

At $26.50 per person, it may seem pricey on the outset, but considering the type of food available, and the upscale elegance of the setting, it is fairly reasonable. The menu included roast turkey, baked salmon, beef tourtiere, and a variety of cold seafood platters. Although the spread was similar to last year’s offerings, I do believe the quality had much improved (granted, the mere act of conjuring up superlatives to describe this year’s lunch may have colored my perspective slightly). In particular, I found myself favoring the cheese perogies and carved ham. For dessert, I chose a slice of chocolate mousse cake (incorrectly labeled “double chocolate”), and as Rachel Ray would say: “Yum-o!”

Props to my coworkers who had created a Christmas-themed Jeopardy game to follow our meal. It was incredibly well put-together, with questions sampling Yuletide songs, pop culture, and charades.

Overall, it was a fun and relaxing way to spend an afternoon away from the office.

Table setting

Buffet line up

My plate!

Chocolate mousse cake