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I’m Dining Out Here

by Andrew Sprague

It’s funny how things happen.

In 1999 I was a university dropout working at the bingo hall, and slopping drinks at a local bar. Not that there’s any shame in either of those occupations, but they didn’t present much in the way of future career opportunities. After repeated suggestions that I parlee my smooth bingo calling skills into a career in radio, I threw caution to the wind, along with a fair amount of borrowed cash, and enrolled in the radio broadcasting program at Algonquin College in Ottawa. Two years later I was working an internship at CBC. That turned into a six-year, four-city turn with the corp. 

During that time, I met Peter Richards, and he offered me a restaurant column in The Buzz. I had no experience writing for print and I was only learning how to write like a reporter, but I guess he saw something in me. It’s been 12 years now.

I never dreamed I would end up writing a restaurant column. I might have guessed sports broadcaster, or rock radio DJ back in 1999, but a restaurant writer? What did I know about food, other than the basics so lovingly passed onto to me by my mother? Not to mention the fact that in the late nineties the culinary scene on the Island was limited, to put it mildly. How would I do a monthly column that would last more than a couple years?

Well something happened over the last twelve years that has literally changed the way people talk about our province and our food. Our culinary scene has absolutely exploded. We are as well-known now for the quality of our food, and our service industry as we are for our world class golf courses and beaches, probably more so. That’s made it easy for a hack like me to produce about 110 “I’m dining out here”’s over the years. I still can’t, and usually don’t provide a detailed critique of the food. I’m by no means qualified to do that. But can I tell you if I liked it? I sure can. Can I tell you whether there was too little rosemary in the Beef Wellington? Hell no. Did I eat all the Beef Wellington? Did I ever.

The column opened other doors for me. 

I got a book deal [Taste: Recipes from Prince Edward Island's Best Restaurants, Nimbus]. I sold some books. I freelanced for a few other publications. I also got a lot of respect from restaurant owners around the city. They treated me well, but I tried my very best to never take advantage of that. If they insisted on a discount, or any other special treatment, I insisted right back until I knew for sure it wouldn’t get me anywhere. Having said that, I can only think of one occasion where I got the food for free or at a discount, and a column was published. I disclosed that in the article itself.

But life has a way of carrying on and taking you in different directions. These days I spend a lot more time parenting and a lot less time eating out. I’ve also recently become deeply involved in the local pool scene, and much of my time is no longer my own. With all that in mind I’ve decided to retire my column here at The Buzz, and this will be my last.

I want to thank everyone who’s read the column and offered kind words over the years. It’s been such a pleasure doing this, and knowing people look forward to it has meant the world to me. Thanks also to the gang at The Buzz. Bon appetit.

The bridesmaids

Trivia and burgers in Tyne Valley

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague

About four years ago I was invited by my boss at the time to join his team for the Prince Edward Island Trivia Championships, the opening event of the Tyne Valley Oyster Festival. 

Forty some-odd teams of up to six set up at tables arranged on the floor of the Tyne Valley rink. There are drinks, snacks and all kinds of Oyster Festival and Rock the Boat gear for sale, but oddly, no oysters, or at least none that I’ve seen. That aside it’s a great time, with some decent cash prizes on the line, and it gives me an opportunity to see family and close friends nearby. Our team has finished second every time I’ve been there.

This year I also had the opportunity to visit Backwoods Burger, the latest incarnation of what was The Landing in Tyne Valley. I mentioned it in the June issue as part of a foodie day tour of the area along with Tyne Valley Tea and Company and Moth Lane Brewery. I didn’t have time to drop in to the last two, and manage the requisite visits, but I did stop in for a beer and a burger at Backwoods.

The menu is dominated by a wide variety of burgers along with some pub classics, a few unique apps and a number of seafood dishes. I found the onion ring tower intriguing, as well as the Mac and Cheese, but an app and a burger platter sounded like way too much food, so I compromised. The Return of the Mac had both mac and cheese and onion rings on it, as well as shredded iceberg lettuce, marble cheddar, and a sauce of some kind that was hard to identify on top of the other ingredients.

I expected a sloppy mess, and the waitress suggested it might be, but the burger held up well. It was also delicious. The combination of the onion rings and the mac and cheese created a sort of mac and cheese pie on top of the burger, with a crispy deep-fried onion crust. I really liked this burger, but I did dip the last few bites in some ketchup to add a little zip. It was rich. The side fries were thinly cut and just about perfect, as was the generous serving of spicy, creamy coleslaw. I even managed to ease my guilt from not having visited Moth Lane by enjoying a couple of small glasses of their Red Dirt Road red ale. They were a tasty and refreshing compliment to the rather heavy meal.

I’ve visited the Landing location on a number of occasions and I was really pleased to see the new brand didn’t affect the interior of the building. It’s the perfect space for a pub. The high, clear finished beadboard ceilings and the wooden benches and chairs give the room a classic barroom feel. The additional décor, with the bicycle hanging from the rafter, the chalkboard signs, and the kitchy nick knacks here and there add a laid-back touch that puts you at ease and makes you feel welcome.

After the burger I made a bee line to Lennox Island for a quick visit with the Sarks. Then I hauled ass back to the rink to meet my team and get busy answering questions. It was a tough night. I mean who would have remembered the theme song to Cagney and Lacey. There was also a fairly spirited debate among team members about whether the p in pH stood for percentage or parts. Turns out it was neither. Potential hydrogen. Who knew?

In the end, we were tied for second and third place. The tie breaker asked how many minutes of footage featured dinosaurs in the original Jurassic Park. We nailed the answer with 15 minutes and got second. We were bridesmaids again, but I’m feeling confident about next year.

Part of the show

Audience participation at the Feast Dinner Theatre

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague

Maintaining composure can be difficult for a performer at the best of times. Being on stage is tough. It requires incredible concentration to deliver a good performance and something as small as the ding of a cell phone can disrupt an artist’s focus. We’ve all peered around to see who’s ringing so we can give them a dirty look.

A ringing cell phone is bad, but unwelcome audience participation is worse. The performers are usually in the middle of a certain piece of dialogue or a song and someone shouts or acts out, desperate for attention. In that moment those people believe what they’re doing adds to the value to the show. It almost never goes well and can result in some truly cringe-worthy moments. 

It would be shocking if someone shouted “He’s not dead, I can see him breathing” during a performance of Anne. The fourth wall, the invisible barrier that separates the performers from the audience, is far too strong to allow that kind of thing to happen. But other types of performance are more prone.

2018 is the 40th anniversary of the Feast Dinner Theatre. The show has been a staple of the Island’s summer entertainment line up since its inception. It’s produced some great shows and some notable alumni including As It Happens host Jeff Douglas and Soul Pepper Theatre mainstay Mike Ross. This year’s show is called Up in Smoke. I took in the performance at the Rodd Charlottetown Hotel in mid-July. The show tells the story of the Simpson sisters and their farm in Cavendish. The three sisters are broke and are torn about what to do with the family farm.

It’s a fun show. The food is good, and the performers are highly talented. The story is light and accessible to just about anyone. But boy, oh boy is it prone to unwelcome audience participation.

Imagine the focus required to not only play a part in a show, but play every instrument in a rock band, sing, deliver dialogue in a story, take food and drink orders, deliver said food and drink, and bus tables all in the same night. It takes incredible skill and concentration to perform well under those conditions. The performers are in character and engaged with the audience while they do food and drinks. To a certain degree they make you feel involved. They might even call an audience member out for something they said during one of these interactions. They play a few songs, and they advance the story with dialogue.

It was during one of those pieces of dialogue that four, somewhat inebriated audience members decided they would make themselves part of the show. I suppose they were emboldened by the combination of alcohol and live performance interaction. A performer had to literally shout “IT’S MY TURN TO TALK NOW!” to stop one man’s interruptions. It was painful to watch. What was it like for the performers?

Given everything else they have to do, the last thing they should have to face is unruly audience members who insist on injecting off-the-cuff one-liners at the expense of the show. Even if by some miracle someone produces a zinger, the show must go on as if it was never spoken. These performers work too hard to have someone ruin the show from the outside.

Enjoy the show. Don’t try to be part of it. 

—Andrew Sprague has been writing about food for The Buzz since the turn of the millenium. He is the author of Taste: Recipes from Prince Edward Island’s Best Restaurants (Nimbus, 2006).

Atlantic Blue

East Coast icons

Review by Andrew Sprague

Performed by
Tara MacLean, Cynthia MacLeod, Todd MacLean, Deryl Gallant, and Jon Matthews with cameo appearances by Dennis Ellsworth, Danny Costain, and three step dancers.

Written and Directed by 
Tara MacLean

With contributions from
A cast of local theatre and music heavyweights including Adam Brazier, Duncan McIntosh and David Cyrus MacDonald.

The show
Explores the lives, songs and influence of more than a dozen Atlantic Canadian singer songwriters including Lennie Gallant, Ron Hynes, Sarah McLachlan, and Gordie Sampson.

The performance
Tara MacLean’s diverse talents are on full display in Atlantic Blue. She’s a remarkable vocalist, and an engaging and funny storyteller. She introduces each artist with an anecdote, and speaks to their influence on her, and East Coast music in general. Then she presents a short biographical video of the artist, then a song. The videos are written, directed and narrated by MacLean and they are very well done. The band includes some of the Island’s best musicians.  

Best thing
Tara’s vocal performance on Gordie Sampson’s "Pariswas simply breathtaking. Her stories were comical and often deeply personal. She spins a good yarn.

Picking one song per artist is like handing out random pieces of Ganong chocolates; there’s always someone disappointed by what you gave them.

You should go because
If you’re a fan of East Coast music this show will move you. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sing along, and you’ll definitely learn something you didn’t know about the some of the most iconic singer songwriters in Atlantic Canadian history. For instance, did you know Sarah McLachlan gave Tara a bunch of clothes for her first photo shoot and then invited her to play Lillith Fair? Neither did I.

—On stage at The Guild in Charlottetown Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday evenings at 7 pm to September 8, 2018.

Summer wish list

I’m Dining Out Here

by Andrew Sprague

There are so many places I want to go this summer I can barely decide where to start. From one end of the Island to the other, restaurants are calling out to me and my wallet to come pay them a visit, metaphorically, of course. So instead of focusing on one place to go this July, I am going to tell you about three foodie road trips I’m keen to take this summer. Let’s go for a couple drives, shall we?

Tyne Valley has long been one of my favourite little towns on PEI. It’s about a half hour drive west from Summerside. For years it was home to The Landing, one of my most treasured go to, tucked away eateries. The Landing served an eclectic menu of seafood and pub fare. Inside the last year and-a-half the owners decided to rebrand and focus the menu more on burgers and poutine. Backwoods Burger Craft Beer Cookhouse has been getting rave reviews from the day it opened. The poutines look delicious, and in the case of the Bar Clam Poutine, with lemon garlic butter, cheese sauce and green onion, downright intriguing. I can’t wait to try it. For desert, I hope to get to the Tyne Valley Tea and Company Café for their much talked about bread pudding, or for their equally intriguing Eton Mess. After dessert, I might even slide up to Moth Lane Brewery in Ellerslie for an ice cold IPA to finish the day.

Murray Harbour is another of Prince Edward Island’s beautiful seaside towns. For years Brehaut’s Restaurant was one of my favourite places to eat anywhere in the province. They made delicious chowders and fish and chips, not to mention the best milkshakes in Kings County. Brehaut’s has since become The Harbourview and has carried on the tradition, but it’s another restaurant, Number 5 Café, that will see me making the drive this summer. It’s located in what used to be a small church. I’ve been once before and thoroughly enjoyed my meal, and the ambiance. Number 5’s menu includes a variety of Asian style dishes including curries and stir-frys, four burgers, each with a different meat including one made with pulled goat, and a variety of salads. I’d be most tempted to try the Korean Beef with Ginger and Kimchee. To serve the sweet tooth afterward I’d head north to Montague to Windows on the Water for any one of its delicious deserts and the beautiful view of the river. For my night cap, I’d make my first visit to Copper Bottom Brewing for a delicious Copper Bottom Red.

To round out my summer tour I’m heading to the heartland of PEI, with its rolling green hills and stunning viewscapes of patchwork fields and meandering rivers. I’d start with dinner at the Blue Mussel Café in Rustico, but I’d get there super early to get a spot in the ever-present line up, and while I wait, I’ll take stroll along the beach and ponder why it took me so long to come here. I’ll probably have the halibut, if it’s available, or failing that, the Bubbly Bake. When the meal is through I’ll head south to Hunter River for Coconut Cream Pie on the deck at By the River Bakery. To round out the night I’d head further south to Rose Valley, for a growler fill up and a pint at Barnone Brewery. It would have to be a Thursday for that to happen, but it would be a perfect finish to a fine foodie day on PEI.

Andrew Sprague has been writing about food for The Buzz since the turn of the millenium. He is the author of Taste: Recipes from Prince Edward Island’s Best Restaurants (Nimbus, 2006).


I’m Dining Out Here

by Andrew Sprague

PEI Burger Love is the most successful restaurant and local food promotion in the history of the Island if not the Maritimes. It’s generated millions of dollars for the local economy in April; a month that was traditionally slow for a vibrant but still very seasonal restaurant industry. Eateries from one end of the Island to the other have been flooded with customers for the whole of the month for eight years now, and I expect many of them had to hire on a few extra staff to handle the volume.

Stockyards, on the other hand, have taken some kind of beating. 184,000 burgers went out the door in 2017. I did the math about three years ago and I couldn’t fathom how there was enough available ground beef on the Island to satisfy demand during April. “What would be left,” I thought, “some very worried and overworked dairy cattle?”

Inconvenient math aside Burger Love has been great. It’s anticipated by its legions of fans, it’s a big boost to local entrepreneurs, and it brings people out when our economy could use them the most.

It’s also overwhelmingly huge. I expect the most common conversation about Burger Love this year went something like this:

“Hey man, you ready for Burger Love?”
“Oh ya, I love Burger Love.”
“So, there’s like, 85 burgers this year.”
“Holy crap! Which ones are you gonna have?”
“I dunno, man. The map is too big to read.”
“I hear ya, man. I heard there’s a deep fried tarantula on one of them.”

Eighty-five burgers. How can anyone contemplate a winner when the average Joe realistically maxes out at ten percent of the entrants? I know votes determine the winner to a degree but there’s a dilution when there are that many competitors. It makes it hard to pick a place or two that look interesting because it takes an hour and a half to review all the burgers and locations. You just end up buying a burger wherever you go.

Another comment I heard often was about the simplicity of a burger, the purity of it, being lost on a competition like Burger Love. I used to really enjoy the novel ingredients and flavour combinations, but now I find too many of them gaudy. Either that or the burger’s sheer size borders on offensive. Not every burger is overdone or absurdly large, but way too many of them are. In this day and age we should know better. Just give me a tasty burger that I can eat without using a backhoe.

Despite my mildly cynical attitude toward the 2018 edition of Burger Love, I did manage to try four entries by press time. The best of the bunch was the Small Town Smoke at Water’s Edge at the Delta Prince Edward. I split it with my son and he liked it so much he ate the tomatoes on it and that’s no small thing. The website describes it as a six ounce red pepper gouda-infused Island beef patty with garlic and shallots, herbed gouda, candied bacon, house-smoked tomato aioli, arugula, and the aforementioned tomato, on a toasted pretzel bun, topped with a pickled pepperoncini pepper. Had I not read that I would have described it as a delicious, smoky bacon cheeseburger with a zesty mayonnaise, and some other stuff. It wasn’t a bit sloppy, and it was compact; two very important qualities. It was a solid nine out of ten and a pleasure to eat.

It will be interesting to see where Burger Love goes from here. Will more restaurants be added in 2019? Will it sustain it’s already overwhelming size? I hope it continues on for years. But I’d also really love to see some chefs dial it way back. Make a simple burger with basic ingredients that doesn’t make a mess. It’s the easiest recipe in the world.

Fan favourite

I’m Dining Out Here

by Andrew Sprague

I must admit, when Hopyard first opened in the former Lot 30 on Kent Street in Charlottetown I wondered how it was going to survive. Charlottetown is fairly saturated with restaurants to begin with. I had my doubts that its focus on craft beer and plates under $10 would cover the overhead costs in a large space downtown, even if it was full most nights. And who, exactly, was this new place going to attract? Sure they have big stacks of vinyl, but would that draw people in?

Mike Ross is no stranger to the Charlottetown restaurant scene. If I’m not mistaken he started his career in the city under the alias Hoss at Lone Star Café. That began a long tenure with the Murphy Group of Restaurants. For many years before he opened Hopyard he was the head of Sales and Customer service for the PEI Brewing Company. You may have seen his picture, naked to the waist, hanging near the ceiling in the event space at the brewery. There he met Hopyard co-owner Brett Hogan and hatched the idea for a spot of their own.

Mike is a popular guy, and for good reason. You’d be hard pressed to find a more sincere, charming and funny guy. His personality alone attracts people like flies to a UV light. I don’t know Brett very well, but he acts as a suitable foil to Mike. He’s younger, taller, and a little more understated. He’s a heck of a nice guy too. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised Hopyard’s turned into a massive success.

The food is amazing. Chef Jane Crawford’s menu rotates with regularity and often has a running theme. On my last trip in mid March the theme was fan favourites; a collection of their most popular menu items to date. A couple highlights included Tostadas which consisted of crispy corn tortilla, three bean chili, pickled onions, sunny egg, jalapeno sour cream, green onion and carrot vinny; and Satay Fries that featured peanut satay butter, bang bang sauce, garlic mayo, soy chicken, sugary peanuts and scallion. My selection that day was the OG tacos, and oh gee were they delicious. The perfectly cooked braised pork belly was served with kimchi, basil mayo, bean sprouts, cilantro, sesame and what the chef calls sweet and sticky. For $8 you won’t find a better plate of tacos in town.

Hopyard’s current menu is Burger Love inspired. It features many sides you’d immediately associate with hamburgers including poutine, onion rings and Porkbelly Bao; a steamed bao bun, Sriracha pork belly, jalapeno slaw, teriyaki mayo, candied nuts and spicy plum. Okay, maybe the Bao doesn’t exactly scream burgers, but you can be sure it will be a delicious plate of food.

I’d be hard pressed not to mention the beer. Hopyard has ten taps; five for local brews and five for beer from across the Maritimes. They rotate constantly and it allows regulars to get the best possible sampling of the region’s offerings. The best beer I’ve ever had off a tap I had at Hopyard. It was the Exile on North Street IPA from Unfiltered Brewery in Halifax. It was so good I had five.

Hopyard has been so successful that, even in its infancy, the owners are expanding to Halifax. At last report they were at minimum six months away and the location was still being nailed down. That said, the owners are confident there will be a Hopyard in Halifax in the near future. Here’s hoping their success, and their rather massive selection of vinyl continues grow.

Revolving doors

Empty space re-opens with two new restaurants

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague

(photo: Andrew Sprague)Few storefronts in Charlottetown have seen as many incarnations as 177 Great George Street (formerly 77 University Avenue). 

Some remember it best as an Indian buffet called Royal Tandoor or a Chinese place called Silver Streams. Others may have rocked out for a night at the Alibi Lounge. Others still may have had their first burger that included meat from three different birds at the Orange Lunchbox. I know I did. For a short time last year John Pritchard set up shop in the space, and just recently two restaurants have moved in after an extensive renovation that saw the square footage split in half by a new wall and bathrooms.

On the left we have Green Jade Café which specializes in Thai food. On the right we have Crafters Burger Co. the subject of this month’s column.

Crafter’s serves thirteen varieties of burger, six styles of grilled cheese and a dozen sides. They have beer on tap and pops in the fridge. You put your order in at the counter and they bring it out to you when it’s ready. The space is open and fresh with seating for about thirty, and a few stools at the window where you can watch the world go by.

Among the more interesting burger selections are the Maui Wowie with glazed ham, pineapple salsa, provolone cheese and sweet honey soya mustard; the Budda Bing with chunky marinara, aged pepperoni, banana peppers, smoked mozarella and herb mayo; and the French Melt with braised onions, roasted mushrooms, gruyere cheese and herb mayo. The grilled cheese contain many of the same ingredients and combos as the burgers. The sides feature a green and Caesar salad, and a whole bunch of deep fried stuff including mac and cheese balls, fried chicken and gravy fries, and Royales, which are mashed potato, cheddar and bacon balls with gravy on the inside. Too many of those bad boys and you might as well book the angioplasty ahead of time.

The burger I ordered, the Founding Father, might best be described as TABPSSLCPO on a SSB without the O and the SS, and the Ps are deep fried. Those born after 1990 might not get that, and those born before might be confounded anyway. Crafter’s version of the Big Mac was a monster of a sandwich. It’s a big double-decker with what Crafter’s tongue-in-cheekedly calls Familiar Sauce. It was oddly familiar. The Founding Father was pretty tasty but lacked a certain zing found in the sandwich that inspired it. The onion rings on the side were crunchy and delicious. I came within four bites of finishing the burger but had to throw in the towel.

My company that afternoon ordered his burger with fries on the side. After seeing my onion rings he seemed to regret that, but the fries were good all the same. His burger was the Beefy Boy with pulled beef short rib, roasted mushrooms, crispy onion rings, double cheddar and spicy horseradish mayo. He ate every bite and grunted once for sure, so I’m pretty sure he liked it. It seemed sloppy but he managed to keep the vast majority in his face rather than on his plate.

At $21 for the burger, rings, a chocolate milk, and a generous counter service tip it was right in the neighbourhood of most downtown lunches.

Crafter’s Burger Co. shows some promise. The burgers are good and the service is quick and uncomplicated. I’ll be back to try a few Royales for sure. Let’s hope the revolving door at play this time is the one greeting customers and not the one that sends another business out.

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