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.

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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.

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.

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.

Christmas in November: Cocktails with Bob Blumer and a “Chopped” Reception

Before our gala dinner, we joined a small group inside the clubhouse kitchen for a VIP session with Chef Bob Blumer. Known as the energetic host of shows such as Glutton for Punishment and World’s Weirdest Restaurants, we were hoping Bob’s humour and enthusiasm would come through. In the end, we thought he had planned the perfect cocktail hour session, featuring recipes for both a drink and a nibble.

Bob Blumer

Bob’s caesar twist

Bob’s cocktail of choice was a caesar, made with a lemon vodka and a special rim. For additional kick, Bob recommended using honey and freshly grated horseradish. Mack, who is definitely a caesar fan, gave it a thumbs up.

Bob Blumer

Mack eagerly accepts a taste

For his cheeky shrimp on the bar-b, Bob continued the spicy theme with pan-fried chipotle-rubbed shrimp. Served with a cilantro dipping sauce, it was a tasty one-bite appetizer. And how is the dish related to its name, without reference to a grill, you ask? Simply serve the shrimp accompanied by what else – a Barbie doll.

Christmas in November

Shrimp on the Bar-B

For his final trick, Bob attempted to sabre a bottle of champagne, a trick he had taught fellow presenter Chef Lynn Crawford earlier in the week. Unfortunately, he must have had a faulty bottle, as his several attempts failed. It was a little nerve wracking to watch – a few of us were convinced the bottle would shatter before the end.

Bob Blumer

1…2…3!

Thanks to Bob for a fun start to our Christmas in November evening!

We headed back to the main lodge for the gala dinner. With everybody dressed up, it was a good time for photo ops.

Mack & Sharon

Gorgeous Christmas decorations

Santa was even on hand to make sure adults weren’t left out of the seasonal pose.

Christmas in November

With Diana, Vincci and Brittney (aka the Gastropost crew)

Jasper Park Lodge had pulled out all of the stops, decking out the reception hall in sumptuous linens and holiday colours.

Christmas in November

Gala décor

They had also organized great entertainment. The Willows, a trio based out of Toronto, sang a series of retro-inspired Christmas songs that lent a classic lounge feel to the room.

The Willows

The Willows

Dinner, unfortunately, was a little less consistent than our banquet lunch earlier in the day. The mountain foraged mushroom ravioli was pretty good, topped with braised beef short rib, but the buttermilk brined Alberta pork tenderloin was dry for most around our table (though I recognize tenderloin would be a difficult cut to prepare well for such a large crowd).

Christmas in November

Mountain foraged mushroom ravioli

Christmas in November

Buttermilk brined Alberta pork tenderloin

Dessert was an elegantly presented callebaut milk chocolate cup containing vanilla panna cotta.

Christmas in November

Callebaut milk chocolate cup

Before the dance closed out the evening, guests were treated to an “impromptu” Chopped-style competition, with teams drawn from attendees and presenters.

Christmas in November

Chef Dale MacKay advises his team

Chef Lynn Crawford (dressed as Santa) was the judge, and as the competition progressed, she narrated the proceedings for the crowd’s amusement. As you would guess, it was more than a little chaotic, but I had to respect the contestants. Cooking under the tenure of celebrity chefs isn’t easy, and they did it with good humour and grace under pressure. The winner of the contest was the team led by Charcut Chefs John Jackson and Jessica Pelland (the latter of which has actually won Chopped Canada).

Christmas in November

Chef Corbin Tomaszeski works with his team

A live band came on to close out the night, but Mack, Brittney and I had other ideas. We had spotted a games room in the basement of the lodge, and had time for a few rousing games of air hockey.

Brittney vs. Mack

Brittney vs. Mack

Back in our room for the night, we realized the staff of the hotel had been by for turndown service. It was the first time we’ve experienced this service, and though it wasn’t necessary, the Jacek truffles were a sweet surprise.

Christmas in November

Sweet dreams

It was a fun day full of learning, food and big personalities. We were glad to rest up for the last day of sessions.

Christmas in November: Cooking with Chefs Dale MacKay and Lynn Crawford

The title of this post is a bit of a misnomer, as hands-on cooking with the presenters only seemed to happen incidentally. The focus was on demonstrations, and though in some cases, this was the only way to address a large crowd, in other instances (like with Chef MacKay), they missed an opportunity to offer more tangible learning sessions.

Although I was gunning for Albertan chef Connie DeSousa to win the first season of Top Chef Canada, it wasn’t a surprise that Dale MacKay pulled through in the end. And though his television debut is perhaps still his claim to fame, more recently, his year-old Saskatoon restaurant Ayden placed on EnRoute Magazine’s Best New Restaurants list. I actually didn’t know that Dale had relocated from Vancouver back to his hometown, but its great to hear other “back to the Prairies” stories – Toronto and Vancouver doesn’t have it all!

Unlike some of the other presenters, Dale focused on preparing a single dish of spinach & ricotta ravioli with brown butter sage sauce. This meant he could more thoroughly share his guidelines on fresh pasta dough, forming ravioli, and assembling the final plate.

Chef Dale MacKay

Dale preparing fresh pasta

If I walked away with anything at all from the session, it was how making fresh pasta isn’t all that difficult at all. He recommended making up batches to freeze in smaller single portion servings for quick emergency meals that would take twenty minutes to thaw (enough time to throw together a sauce) and three minutes to cook.

Some of Dale’s pro tips:

  • The gauge if you have the right thickness of pasta for tortellini, pass your hand underneath the dough – if you can see your fingernails, stop rolling.
  • To force the ricotta filling into the end of your piping tube, grasp the top and swing around the bag, rodeo style!
  • Make sure to force all of the air out of the half-moon pasta shapes, to ensure the filling stays in place during cooking.
  • Only use fresh herbs for the sauce – dried herbs will burn. As a bonus, the fried sage can be used as a garnish on the final product.
  • To filter out the brown butter sauce, use a coffee filter – its easier and cheaper than cheesecloth.
  • Toss your cooked pasta together with the sauce in a bowl instead of in the pan – it is gentler on the pasta!

Dale was no doubt one of the more low-key presenters, but his technical knowledge and skills were obvious. At times, I did find that he made assumptions about the audience’s level of understanding, but he was always open to questions and was one of the few presenters to build in a hands-on opportunity to assist (in this instance, with pasta folding). Given his detail-driven nature, it would have lent itself well to workshop-style delivery so attendees could feel the thickness of the pasta, and practice the shaping on an individual basis.

Chef Dale MacKay

Gastropost Alberta Community Manager Brittney Le Blanc (centre) learns how to fold tortellini

After the demonstration, we had the chance to taste the final dish (Dale had brought a total of nine hundred frozen tortellini prepared in the Ayden kitchen along with him to Jasper). The pasta was simple but delicious.

Christmas in November

Spinach & ricotta ravioli with brown butter sage sauce

Dale was gracious enough to pose for a photo at the end of the session. I wish him continued success with Ayden! It’s also worth noting that Chef MacKay will be back in Edmonton in March, as one of the guest chefs at Edmonton’s newest food festival, Northern Lands.

Sharon with Chef Dale MacKay

With Dale (and no, the backdrop isn’t photoshopped!)

From Chef MacKay’s focused session, we transitioned to the other end of the spectrum. Having been invited to Christmas in November with Gastropost, we were also given the chance to attend a VIP session with Chef Lynn Crawford. Billed as the “headliner” of the event, most in the crowd that afternoon seemed to be fans eager for a chance to see Lynn live in person. As a result, I’m not sure the majority of the group minded that it was entertainment, not learning, that dominated the hour.

Chef Lynn Crawford

Cocktail hour with Lynn Crawford

Lynn was an energetic host, and played Pharrell’s “Happy” to lighten the mood. She also invited several audience members to assist her with the demonstration, including the preparation of a modified version of her Pitchin’ In cocktail, a combination of apple and lime juices, rum, carrot puree served in a brown butter-rimmed glass. I wasn’t sure about the carrot, but it seemed to add more colour than flavour.

Christmas in November

Pitchin’ In cocktails

The assembly of her fried chicken with lemon thyme honey (a popular dish at her Toronto restaurant, Ruby Watchco) was scattered, to say the least, and most of the actual cooking took place outside of the room and away from our prying eyes inside the Jasper Park Lodge kitchens. To their credit – we did each end up with a plate of the finished product, with a side of cornbread and slaw to boot.

I will say that Lynn did remarkably well in taking things in stride – when another class paraded into our room, music blaring, without missing a beat, she invited them all to stay for fried chicken. Given the group had just finished up their champagne tasting, she also seized the opportunity to show us a new skill she had gained that week – how to sabre a champagne bottle.

Chef Lynn Crawford

Off with the cork

It was all in good fun, but I will admit, it was a little too much of a whirlwind for me.

Mack and I had a bit of time to change before attending another session just before dinner – they definitely pack it in at Christmas in November!

Christmas in November: The Welcome

I’ve been eyeing Christmas in November for the last few years, but because of the steep cost, I knew we’d have to save for it like any other vacation. And given just returned from our honeymoon in October, this year was a write-off. Enter Gastropost, who, through Postmedia (I am a part of the Gastropost Advisory Board), granted Mack and I the opportunity to attend as their guests, in exchange for documenting the weekend. We jumped at the opportunity, and away we went to the final package November 14-16, 2014. Although Mack and I have been to the mountains together before, this was our first trip to Jasper. We were looking forward to the fresh air, wildlife, and of course,  Christmas in November itself!

Christmas in November

Jasper

The moment we rolled into the Jasper Park Lodge, we felt immediately welcomed. All of the staff were eager to help and made sure we were well taken care of. We were eventually directed into our room – although I had expected a facility similar to the chateau-like Fairmont Banff Springs, I quickly realized this Fairmont property was made up of a sprawling complex of cozy cabins. Luckily, our cabin was located a stone’s throw away from the main lodge.

Christmas in November

Our cabin

We joined Brittney Le Blanc, Alberta Gastropost manager, and the rest of the “VIPs” in a pre-reception, and had a chance to meet some of the other attendees and presenters. It was nice to see some Edmonton representation (curiously, in Jasper, both Edmonton and Calgary talent were referred to as “local” presenters, I suppose to differentiate from the chefs visiting from other parts of Canada). It seems the majority of attendees were from Edmonton, though a smaller percentage make the trek from Calgary and the rest of the province.

Christmas in November

With Jacqueline Jacek

Upstairs at the welcome reception, the line-up of presenters were then introduced. It was clear that this was the kind of conference where rubbing elbows with these celebrity chefs was not only permitted, but encouraged.

Anna & Michael Olson

Anna and Michael Olson had fun with the camera

Surveying the attendee demographic, we were surprised with the range. We had been told to expect a large number of mature attendees, and mostly women. And although that was true for the majority, Brittney confirmed that this was the most diverse group she’d seen yet, in terms of age and gender.

Christmas in November

Mack (in front of an edible gingerbread house) wasn’t as outnumbered as he thought

After the brief program, we had access to unlimited food and drink. This included a few signature cocktails, such as the strawberry shortcake martini and a peppermint eggnog.

The Fairmont kitchen had prepared an amazing array of tastes, served at stations around the ballroom.

Christmas in November

Reception

We had fun sampling more than a dozen dishes, with Brittney providing us with helpful recommendations (it was her third buffet, as she had been there for the previous two packages). She pointed us to the poutine bar(!), which featured butter chicken sauce and braised short ribs. The flavour and heat level in the butter chicken gravy was particularly tasty, but it could have been warmer.

Christmas in November

Poutine

That was perhaps our one criticism of the buffet – most of the dishes just weren’t served at the ideal temperature, or, in some cases, had languished under heat lamps. There were a few exceptions to this, which elicited several return trips. The raclette – melty Oka cheese – was simple but decadent.

Christmas in November

Raclette

My favorite dish of the night was the mushroom risotto, made fresh throughout the evening, and served in a carved out parmesan wheel.

Christmas in November

Why yes, I’ll have seconds

Desserts were also a part of the evening, even though we were already more than full. The mincemeat pies were delicious, while Mack enjoyed his pumpkin and blueberry tart.

Christmas in November

Pumpkin and blueberry tarts

We weren’t ones to close out the reception, as we knew we’d have an early start the next morning. We were looking forward to what the presenters had to offer!