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The Sunday Oyster

I’m Dining Out Here

by Andrew Sprague

It’s a tradition of sorts on PEI. Take a beautiful, weekend summer day, a friend, a car and a couple of hours and suddenly you’re a Sunday driver. I love the Sunday drive, or the Saturday drive for that matter. There is so much to discover down a yet to be traveled road. Even on this very small Island there are still things I haven’t seen. There are dozens of little corners that are not only beautiful, but can also offer tantalizing treats for the palette. A couple of years ago I made one of these discoveries.

The drive between Cavendish and Malpeque may be one of the most beautiful on PEI. It’s got everything—rolling hills, stunning dune and sea views, patchwork fields, red cliffs and so on...I’ve taken the drive several times, and every time I end up at the same place, Malpeque Harbour. You come down a big hill into the harbour. On the right is Cabot Park, on the left, the wharf. The wharf is ruled by a pack of cats that live in a small “house” on the left side of the access road. I don’t think anyone knows how many cats live in the house, but there’s a lot of them. Right beside the wharf’s main parking lot is a small seafood market. Above the market, is a small, six table restaurant that specializes guessed it...Oysters.

On this day my passenger and I decided to stop and grab a bite to eat. We headed upstairs to the Oyster House after a quick visit with the cats. We sat down and made our order...a dozen oysters and a basket of deep fried scallops. While we waited, a group of obvious tourists came up the stairs. The last of them went to the washroom and the others took up a table in the corner. For some reason I recognized, really recognized, the man that went to the can. It started to bug me.

A little background. I worked in Ottawa for an alternative rock radio station for a time. I didn’t like it, the pay was bad...if I got paid at all, and the work was sparse at best. To make a long story short the last work I did for them was an “on-location” broadcast from a local stereo store. I showed up late and really hung-over and, well, they never called back.

After sitting for five minutes, driving myself nuts trying to figure out who this man was, it finally hit me. I looked over to the table where he would be sitting and asked, “The guy who went to the washroom, is his name Scott?” “Why, yes it is,” one of them answered. I couldn’t believe it. Here, in this closet sized oyster house, in a small corner of PEI, was the manager of the radio station that fired me in Ottawa. When he came out of the washroom I got up to introduce myself. He didn’t recognize me. He asked what I was doing now. I told him. Then he said “Well, if you ever decide to come back to Ottawa, come see me, I may have some work for you.” Obviously Scott hadn’t been told by his promotions manager, my boss, why I had been let go.

My passenger and I then enjoyed some of the best and freshest oysters I’ve ever put to my lips. The scallops were good too. We agreed that what just happened could only ever happen on PEI, maybe even only on a Sunday drive. There sure is a lot to discover out there.

A Good Fit

I’m Dining Out Here

by Andrew Sprague

I called bingo for five years at the Royal Canadian Legion in Charlottetown. Under the tutelage of “Johnny Boy” Dunn I honed my skills and mastered the craft. But like many a talent, calling bingo lost its usefulness, and for many years it sat on the back burner waiting for a chance to shine again. Not too long ago the back burner got turned on, and I found myself calling bingo once more, at a Friday night fund-raiser for a grade eight, french class trip to the Maggies. I don’t mean to brag…but I still got it baby. You’d swear I just finished a shift at the Legion.

After the games were through a few bingo-playing friends and I decided to head out for a bite to eat and a little something to soothe the vocal chords. The five of us ranged in age from 29 to 36. There were two girls and three guys, one of which was wearing a suit. We wanted food and drink and we wanted them in a spot we could chat. We decided on St. James Gate.

St. James Gate reminds me of a few places I’ve been before, none of which are on PEI. Strangely, it reminds me very little of the St. James Gate in Moncton; it’s much smaller and not nearly as nicely laid-out. It does remind me of The Economy Shoe Shop in Halifax and The Royal Oak in Ottawa. Here’s how...

Every town needs a place for the yuppies to go and party with their own. I hate to use that word, yuppie. But frankly, it’s the one that fits. Until the first of the year there were a couple of places that catered, to some degree, to well-dressed young professionals. Since St. James Gate opened in December, it has fully established itself as a 30-something stronghold. Maybe it’s the candle-light, maybe it’s the rock and roll, maybe it’s the abundant selection of imported draught. Whatever it is, it’s working. And the weekends are three deep at the bar.

That Friday night was no exception. We got there at ten, and the place was three-quarters full. We munched on chicken bruscetta and drank imported beer, well at least I did. We chatted. We laughed. Some of us even tried to stay out after bed time (the older you get the sooner it is, you see). Being the youngest in the crowd, I decided to stay out late. My friends went home and left me to my devices. So, I found some other friends. We chatted, laughed and drank imported beer. And then I found some other friends. Before I knew it the place was full and I was enjoying myself rather heartily. The band was playing The Police, people were dancing and, well, spring was in the air, let’s say. I decided to retire just before closing time.

I really enjoyed myself that bingo-calling, Friday night at St James Gate. I guess it was a good fit for a yuppie like me.

Ten Pounds of Tasty

I’m Dining Out Here

by Andrew Sprague

Sometimes I can’t control my cravings. I ran into a fine example of this powerlessness not too long ago. After work on Friday I made my way over to Assumption Parish for their annual St. Patrick’s Day play. It was a great time, and as a bonus I got to see a friend who was home from Fredericton to see his mother perform. After the obligatory handshakes and congratulations we decided to head into town for a couple of “what’s been going on?” beers.

Another friend joined us at my place around ten-thirty. By that time we were all getting a rather serious case of the munchies. Then it happened. I heard two of the most dangerous syllables that can be uttered by an individual seeking food. The two syllables that can make many a drunk man drool, and many a sober man wince. Doh-Nairs.

I’m no stranger to the late night donair. Some friends and I actually had a donair tradition. When we’d go to Halifax we’d always stop by Pizza Corner for one of the world famous “King of Donair” donairs. They were tasty, but the price we’d pay in the morning was never fun; gut-rot, really, really bad breath, and malicious garlic body odour.

But this was outside of tradition. We were in Charlottetown, we were not drunk, and it wasn’t really late at night. That didn’t seem to matter. I kept hearing it in my head “get a donair, so greasy and good, don’t worry about the consequences, think of how good it will taste…” Eventually none of us could wait another minute, and off we went, to Jack’s Pizza on University Avenue.

When we got there we put our order in—two medium and one small donair all with cheese. We were going to eat them at Jack’s to save taking the mess home, but the incredibly loud music drove us out. When the order was ready I paid the bill and grabbed the bag. It weighed ten pounds if it weighed an ounce. I passed it to both of my friends to confirm it weighed as much as I thought it did. For a moment I wished I had a scale.

We took the donairs home and ripped the bag open. The mediums were the size of Nerf footballs. They were so big there was no way you could eat them with your hands, a fork and knife was required. And these were the mediums and smalls. Neither my friends nor I came close to finishing them, but it wasn’t for lack of taste. The meat was tasty. The sauce was garlic sweetness. The bread was soft and chewy. Everything you’d want in a donair, and unfortunately, a couple of things you wouldn’t. I only say that because I woke up in the morning with a donair hangover to rank up there with my Halifax days. For the sake of happy mornings, I hope that craving stays away for a while…or do I?

Consistent Winner

I’m Dining Out Here

by Andrew Sprague

I remember the day I met Peter Hyndman, the owner of The Merchantman Pub in Charlottetown. He had recently acquired a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label Blended Scotch Whiskey and I had recently acquired a seat at the bar in his pub.

The bottle wasn’t open yet so I asked if I could have a look. After a quick glance-over I handed the bottle back and asked how much it was for a shot. With a grin Peter said “Well, it’s a 180 dollar bottle of booze, so I’m not quite sure yet.” I suggested he crack the bottle, give the first shot to me for eight bucks, and then we’d decide together how much to charge everyone else. I guess he thought that was a good idea, because I had a healthy shot of whiskey, on ice, in front of me within fifteen seconds. Soon after we decided he’d charge 12 dollars for a shot. At the same time I decided to bring much of my restaurant business his way. That was seven years ago…give or take.

Since then Peter and his dedicated staff have never let me down. I say dedicated because there are at least eight staff who’ve been there five years or longer, some ten years. I think one reason is keeping the restaurant closed every Sunday; shift workers love a committed day off. Not to mention the fact that the place is busy—if you don’t have reservations Friday, forget it. That keeps the money flowing for the wait staff, and that means they’ll stick around. I’ve never worked for Peter or Paul Strain the manager/part-owner, but I hear they’re good to their people.

The Merchantman has something for everyone. The layout goes from casual fine-dining to friendly pub to quiet and kinda private. The menu consists of pub selections, steaks, pastas, and seafood, all of which are tasty. The prices suit almost every budget. The wine and beer selections are plentiful and they have good scotches, too, I hear. The service is generally quick, but if you want to take your time they’ll pamper you. So all in all everyone is taken care of, including the abundant regulars.

Perhaps the finest aspect of the Merchantman Pub is it’s ability to deliver a good meal and good service every time. I can’t think of an exception to that rule in my own experience. Peter’s chefs do a fantastic job in the kitchen and he picks his front of house staff well (some in the industry have referred to the Merch as a sanctuary of sorts for the best restaurant workers in town, lifers if you will).

Back in the fall we held the Buzz Restaurant Referendum and the Merchantman didn’t fair too well, on the surface that is. It didn’t win in any categories, but it did come close and it got votes in more categories all together than just about any other place on PEI. That tells me those who enjoy the Merchantman Pub enjoy it for a host of reasons. I know I have my reasons. The best reason of all?—I smile when I’m there…and that’s a rare thing to say.

Breakfast Salvation

I’m Dining Out Here

by Andrew Sprague

It’s very fitting that hungover and hungry start with the same four letters. For many people the two go hand in hand. That’s not to say every time someone’s hungry they’re hungover. But the opposite can be true. Where there’s a headache, dehydration, general malaise and slightly faded memories of last night, there is often hunger. Not your typical hunger either. The hungover hunger can range from the ravenous “willing to eat left over Chinese food” hungry; to the nauseous “slowly nibble at this melon until I can stomach something bigger” hungry; to the traditional “bacon and eggs with a side of grease” hungry.

I suffer from the latter and it’s eleven o’clock on a Saturday morning. The evening previous began with a meal and a couple of beer at Baba’s Lounge. Then to the Charlottetown Civic Centre for more beer and to watch a sixteen-year-old hockey phenom attract one of the biggest crowds ever. Then to my house for a few after-game beer. Then a perilous rescue mission to the Olde Dublin Pub, and one more beer. Then to sleep. Needless to say I brought the hangover on myself. But I know the cure, well my cure, is coffee, bacon, eggs, home fries, toast and water. And today I will seek it at Cora’s on Queen Street in Charlottetown.

Inside Cora’s looks just like the menu they hand me when I sit down; there are lots of bright colors, and the walls are covered with cardboard cut-out illustrations of fruit and menu items, as well as plastic chickens roosting inside a milk crate. There’s even a chicken mirror. The open kitchen is in the back, and most of the tables are booths. It’s a nice looking spot that toes the line of over-the-top.

The menu is expansive. There are crepes, omelettes, breakfast combos, eggs benedict, fruit dishes, french toast, you name it. Not to mention the fact that there are seven or eight different types of each of those. It’s one of those menus that makes it really hard to decide. But eventually I do, the bacon, cheddar and tomato omelette with home fries, whole wheat toast, coffee and water.

The coffee is good and my cup never empties. When the food arrives I’m so hungry I barely notice the first few bites go down. Once I start tasting my food, I realize it’s pretty good. The eggs are nice and fluffy and the omelette as a whole is tasty. The home fries are the sliced, round, home cut style, and I’m pretty sure they’re not the frozen kind. There’s a lot of food too. I left more than a few bites on my plate. But really, today, the real test is how I’ll feel about a half an hour after I eat. If I’m still as hungover as when I arrived then Cora’s gets the thumbs down. If I’m ready to be a productive member of society again, thumbs up.

But I never actually get to find out. That’s because within ten minutes of arriving home I’m passed out on the couch with a loud infomercial blaring from the television. About two hours later I wake up and the hangover is all but a memory. So the half hour test was inconclusive but the two hour test gives Cora’s the thumbs up. Make sure you don’t spend all your cash the night before though, you probably won’t be able to pay for your meal with leftover change.

Slugging It Out West

I’m Dining Out Here

by Andrew Sprague

It takes a long time to get to Tyne Valley from Charlottetown at three pm on a Saturday afternoon. Especially when your Aunt’s cousins are celebrating their 25th anniversary, and the party hasn’t stopped since Friday night. I find my father at the farmhouse of Joe and Marion Gillis in Bayside, a scant ten minutes from our destination. I never knew oysters could be so good at 4 pm on an empty stomach. Thanks Joe.

Dad and I have already planned to go to The Landing for supper, but first to I must go Lennox Island, I’m expected at the Sarks. I find Charlie there with his parents and a pack of dogs who greet me with a chorus of barks. We sit and chat for a little while, then Charlie and I head out. We go back to Bayside to pick up Pa, and we drop by the Lewis’s to pick up my cousin Michael. Then finally, we go to supper. It’s seven o’clock, and it only took us four hours to get to Tyne Valley.

I’ve never been to The Landing before, though I’ve heard plenty about it. We walk in the front door and the first thing I notice is a glass rack above the bar with about fifty personalized beer mugs hanging from it, one of which belongs to Charlie. Nice touch, it makes you feel like family to have your own glass. The room looks like a typical pub: hardwood floors, stained wood moldings, bar on the left, stage on the right, and room for about seventy people. A local photographer’s pictures grace the walls. They’re photos of life in western PEI. All together a it’s a nice looking spot.

We order beers and glance over the menu. It’s a pub menu with all the old-time favorites plus a few originals thrown in. I decide on the steak special. Just about every pub has one, so it’s good to try them all and find the best deal. This one turns out to be a well-marinated round steak with fries and coleslaw. It fills me, it’s tasty, and cooked to order. As we dine we’re joined by Matt McGuire, head cook and bottle washer. He says it’s his day off, and he’s just relaxing tonight. But he decides to join us for a couple of glasses of suds and a little chitchat all the same.

A four-man Celtic-style band takes the stage. They’re smooth, but they don’t veer too far off the beaten path. A crowd of about twenty locals arrives over the next hour and the place starts to come alive.

You know what it feels like to me? It almost feels like this place belongs in another town. Up the road there are about forty cars parked at the fire hall, and there is no doubt loud country music playing, with a substantially larger crowd inside. I don’t think that’s what Matt is shooting for here. He wants a relaxed atmosphere. A casual place for people to come who want to sit, hear some good music, and enjoy good company. For Tyne Valley locals the more popular option seems to be the fire hall—my cousin has already left us to go there—but the customers of The Landing are faithful, and there seems to be enough of them to keep the place running. Consequently, there were enough of them on the pub’s email list who followed the link to vote in The Buzz Restaurant Referendum to give it the largest margin of victory in the contest (see last month’s column). Good on ya, Matt. That was a pretty slick move. But you’ve got a good spot and you deserve the recognition for best pub all the same. I might just get a mug engraved.

A Tasty Beginning

I'm Dining Out Here

by Andrew Sprague

Friday, November 14 my friend and I go to Off Broadway, where we are quickly greeted by the host. He shows us to our table, in Debbie's section, away from the kitchen. Richard MacEachern, makes his way past to fill our water and say hello. Great guy, great server as well. Then along comes Debbie. She greets us with a big smile. She looks radiant. I don't even notice the wine menu I've just been handed. I have a feeling she knows I'm here to do this. She gives us bread and after a quick chit chat she gives us a minute.

Hmmm…what wine to pick?? The eternal question. I'm no expert, nor my friend. Red or white...this food that food…so bourgeois. We decide on white. The 1999 Louis Latour Chardonnay…I think…I should have written that down. It's delicious. Nice ‘n' dry. The wine service is perfect. Maybe this is a touch bourgeois as well, but I love the taste test. The glasses never empty, and nary a drop spills.

My friend and I decide to order the appetizer with the wine and then order the meal. We get oysters, don't get any ideas. A little small, but a nice shuck and served with a tasty in-house seafood sauce. They are on the table in about seven minutes.

My friend decides on the seafood curry with penne pasta. I don't know why, but I pick the striploin. The meals are on the table about two minutes after the last oyster. My friend's curry is fantastic. That's probably why it's been on the menu since the place opened. The curry is nice and thick with lots of scallops, mussels, lobster…yum!

The striploin is not so good. Restaurants in general should ban striploin from the menu. That's right. A ban. No matter how high grade the steak, one side is almost always gristle. Not only that but there's a sliver of sinew down the middle making it hard to eat and hard to cut. Pain in the Butt! Another thing that should be banned, julienned vegetables. I've never eaten a warm serving…because they're so thin they're automatically cold. No exceptions to those rules here at Off Broadway, though it's no fault of theirs. I should have known not to order the striploin. But it's cooked perfectly and the garlic mashed is good.

My friend and I decide we are too full for desert, but we order coffee. Good coffee I might add, and again I never see the bottom of the cup.

The bill comes to $107 and change. Debbie's service has been so good I give her a healthy, and I mean healthy tip. My friend and I agree that all in all, spoiling ourselves with three Buzz Restaurant Referendum winners was a good idea, and we leave happy and full.

Next month we'll head out of town for the last night of the season, and a sample of the goodness at our "Best Pub" winner. Sounds good to me!


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