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I’ll Have the Burger

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague

There has never been a better local food promotion than Burger Love. No promotion has ever seen the level of public engagement and participant payoff enjoyed by Burger Love. Several restaurants were reporting over a thousand burgers sold in the first twelve days of the month long event. That’s almost a hundred burgers a day. Social media channels were inundated with Burger Love status updates, videos and photos. Thirty-one restaurants took part this year from all over PEI. That’s simply unheard of for a local promotion of any kind, let alone a food promotion. I could go on and on, but suffice to say the reaction to Burger Love has been remarkable at worst, and historic at best.

It’s not without it’s detractors, however. Burger purists would have you believe the overabundance of unusual toppings at many locations is not in keeping with the true spirit of the modest hamburger. These would be the type that draw the line at ketchup and mustard. And while I see their point, I’m not confident a ketchup-mustard burger competition would have the same resonance. Others are quick to point out the high cost, which in some restaurants is a full five dollars more than the regularly priced burger. Again I understand the point, but chefs are bringing in extra ingredients, and every restaurant pays to be in the competition, so I don’t find the prices all that surprising. The most unusual complaint I heard this year was about Burger Love’s impact on social media, and how the plethora of reviews and status updates amounted to little more than “look what I ate,” and they were getting annoying. Fair comment.

All that aside, Burger Love III was a smash hit. I had five burgers by press time. Each had a strength, or strengths, but some were clearly superior.

The lowest scoring entry in my personal Burger Love was Island Gangnam Style from the West End Grill in Summerside. It’s Korean-inspired which explains the kimchee, fried egg and mango mustard. It was the fifth of five burgers in twelve days, so it’s quite possible I was burning out, but this one didn’t inspire. 2/5 and that’s almost all kimchee.

Next was Mavor’s M-1. It was too big for Jinny’s mouth but I managed somehow. The horseradish aioli stood out but the grilled portobellos were lost in the mix. It’s also important to note you can never go wrong with candied bacon. 3.5/5 with a half point deducted for soggy bun.

Maroun’s Mideast Mistress was a feisty Lebanese lady from Cedar’s Eatery and when we made out, she gave me garlic breath. I love kafta and this was a kafta burger if there ever was one. Parsley is a great green for burgers and the Mistress had lots. 4/5.

There was so much happening at Phinley’s I almost passed out from sensory overload. I was with four girls from work and three of us ordered the Smokin’ Fox as did the other ten people I knew in the restaurant. I carried on three conversations at once at one point and got my picture taken for The Guardian. Thankfully they cropped out the bald spot. In between all the madness was an awesome, sweet and smokey, monster of a burger. Jalepeno infused bacon and applewood smoked cheddar go together nicely in case you’re wondering. 4/5 with awesome service to boot.

Mr. Miyagi may have taught Danielsan how to do the crane kick, paint the fence and wax on wax off, but he taught me a thing or two about Asian slaw, hoisin barbeque sauce and caramelized onion wontons. Not only did this sensational burger hold together until the end, it barely left a drop on the plate. That scores big in my books. 4.5/5 for the Old Triangle. If it wins I’ll have picked the winner three years running.

Benefits of Smoking

by Andrew Spraque

I come from a smoking home. Dad smoked. Mom smoked. Both my sisters smoked. I think I was the last one to take them up seriously. I remember my first one. I was just about seventeen. I was driving down a country road with a girl I had a desperate crush on. She smoked and she made it look awesome. So I asked for one and lit it up. I felt like I'd reached a new level of cool. I was smoking. Really smoking. And I was driving down the road with my crush in the passenger seat. This was freedom. This was living.

I started a twenty year relationship that day. Not with the girl in the passenger seat. She and I would remain friends but nothing more. The love affair that began on that early spring afternoon was with the most efficient delivery system for the most addictive substance known to man. I fell in love with cigarettes.

I was a confirmed and relatively heavy smoker by the time I turned twenty. Half a pack a day was my low average. Thrown in a beer or two, a round of golf, a long car ride or a poker game and that could easily turn into a pack, sometimes more. I smoked as soon as I got in the car, and as soon as I got out. I smoked as soon as I got up and right before I went to bed. I smoked before I ate and after, sometimes two in a row. I used any and all excuses to have a smoke. Cigarettes were a big part of my life. In a lot of ways they controlled it.

The first time I tried to quit I invented my own way. I decided I’d start at 25 a day, more than my average to help make me dislike it more, and work down from there. One less a day until I reached zero and that would be it. I think I got down to ten. An hour after I finished my last of the day I was craving so I borrowed my eleventh from the next day, and would therefore only be allowed eight. Two days later I was out of smokes and out of hope my system would work. I was right. I tried to quit three of four other times, with varying degrees of success. I was often grumpy, even a bit snappy, and generally unpleasant to be around when I quit. I always felt like I was being denied this great and important part of my life.

Finally, six months ago now, I quit. This time for good. I read a book, believe it or not. It’s called The Easy Way to Stop Smoking by Allan Carr. My wife bought it for me. I’m not going to go on and on now about how great it was and how it was some kind of miracle cure for nicotine addiction. But I will tell you this; it worked for me. I haven’t craved a cigarette and I’ve passed all the tests; beer, golf and poker. The book cost the same as a pack of cigarettes.

Mom quit first in about 1987. She just stopped. She’s had one drag since and hated it. Alana was next. She also just stopped. She hasn’t had a drag since and is terrified, justifiably, that if she had one she'd be right back on them. Amy quit about two and a half years ago. She met a guy and they quit together. I doubt any of them will start again. Dad is about a month smoke free now. I think he’s finally fully disgusted with them. He smoked for sixty years.

I try not to be preachy. Mostly I joke about it with friends who still smoke. But if I can leave one message it’s this; there is no benefit to smoking. Do whatever you have to to quit. It’s the single best decision you’ll ever make and you won’t regret it for an instant. If every one of the Spragues can do it, you can too.

Thanks to Claire Nantes of the Canadian Cancer Society (PEI Division) for suggesting that Andrew speak about quitting smoking during Daffodil Month, the Society’s annual campaign to raise awareness about cancer issues and cancer prevention.

Under the Radar

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague

These days Jinny and I make it out to eat about once every two weeks. And like any couple we have our favourite spots. Pilot House is a regular stop, as are Claddagh Oyster House and Gahan House. Any place with house in the name, I suppose. You could say we’re creatures of habit. We try to mix it up every once in a while, for the sake of this column if for no other reason. And when we do it’s very often for a specific occasion like a new restaurant, a change in ownership, or some sort of emerging trend or event. Over the years that’s meant certain locations have been excluded. Not intentionally, but simply because of circumstance. This past month we made it to two of those restaurants, the Maple Grille and Mavor’s.

The last time I ate at the Maple Grille was about five years ago. I haven’t been avoiding it by any means. I’ve had no reason to. I couldn’t tell you what I had last time, or any other time before that. I think I might have had a steak once. We decided to go because we were curious to see if the Maple Grille was anything like our hazy recollections.

It was quiet but it was only five pm. We took a booth. The menu was how I remembered it; an eclectic assortment of very reasonably priced appetizers and entrees. There’s a stuffed pork tenderloin right next to a butter chicken, a duck and a portobello rigatoni. Like I said, eclectic. We started with a delicious baked brie in a phyllo pastry. I chose a shrimp and chorizo jambalaya served on basmati rice. I liked it a lot. The smoky creole tomato sauce and vegetables were mixed with a generous portion of jumbo shrimp and chorizo. I’m a sucker for chorizo. Jinny had the roasted red pepper and tomato soup with a greek salad. She really enjoyed it as well. She was especially impressed with the soup and was reluctant to share a spoonful. We finished with a really tasty apple rhubarb flan. The bill was $63 before tip and we both left impressed and stuffed. It was a very pleasant surprise given our initial lack of enthusiasm.

Mavor’s was also a pleasant surprise. Again, not because I’d ever had a bad experience, but because it had been so long since I was last there for supper, I had no idea what to expect. It was international theme night Thursday at Mavor’s, one of four held over the month of March. We hummed and hawed about whether we would split the three course Italian hote table, and get a salad on the side, but in the end we decided against.

Jinny went with a spinach salad this time, with shaved red onion, toasted almonds, mandarine oranges, goat cheese and bacon bits in a poppy seed dressing. She also added a grilled salmon filet. Her quiet hums during each bite were a sure indication of her approval. I had the steak sandwich and fries. It’s served on a steak bun with sliced tenderloin, onions, peppers and mushrooms in a homemade barbeque sauce with a three cheese blend on top. The steak sandwich was good. The fries were great. They’re thin cut in house and they were perfectly crispy, just the way I like them. I got a side of chipotle mayo for dipping too. I was glad to have a beer to wash it all down. At just under $40 before a generous tip for great service, it was a good price and a good meal.

Mavor’s underwent a fairly significant renovation last year. The coffee shop is gone and new booths have been added. Mavor’s is also doing half price late night menu to try and attract a bit of a bar crowd. Just like Maple Grille it’s a place that’s been off my radar lately for no good reason. And just like Maple Grille it may have just made its way back on.

Double the Pleasure

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague

There is no shortage of small cafes and coffee shops in downtown Charlottetown. Stand on the right corner of Kent and University and you need two hands to count the cafes you can see. Walk a block or two in the right direction from there and you’ll be in the double digits before you know it. Take a tour of downtown and you’ll really start to wonder if there are enough people in the province to support them all. Between Pownal and Prince, from Euston to Water, I’d say there are at least 15 establishments that could be described as a cafe or coffee shop. That’s a concentration to rival any major city east of Quebec.

It goes without saying that the cream very quickly rises to the top in an environment so fierce with competition. And if expansion is any indication of success, than Leonhard’s Cafe’s rise to the top is well underway.

Leonhard’s began as a bread and sweet stand at the Farmers Market, but opened as a Cafe on University Avenue in late 2008. It was a small space with seating for about 16 people. It very quickly became known for its excellent coffee and its delicious sweets. The Florentine cookies were a favourite in my circles. They also had great sandwiches, casseroles, salads and soups, and in a few short months Leonhard’s had established itself as a popular and trendy location for lunch downtown. It was very common to have to wait for a table. In what seemed like no time at all Leonhard’s was a smash hit.

And it would seem momentum is working in Leonhard’s favour. A few months ago the cafe underwent a renovation that saw it more than double in size. A beautiful and cozy fireside lounge was added as well as seating for another 20 people.

Jinny and I were in for lunch in early February. It was a beautiful but cold Saturday afternoon and the cafe was packed as usual. There was a waiting list for tables so we took a seat by the front window and let the afternoon sun melt the cold away.

The new, double-wide Leonard’s is a charming space. It’s very tastefully decorated with a lot of birch and white and soft pastel. We noticed angel wings hanging from strings in at least two locations.

One of Leonhard’s best qualities is its ability to cater to a wide range of tastes and appetites. You can have everything from a mid morning snack to a full meal. You can get a salami sandwich right alongside a freshly made schnitzel. It’s a great selection and it seems to get bigger and more varied every day.

Jinny was just snackish, so she ordered the ham and cheese breakfast croissant. It’s come up in conversation on a least two occasions since, so it’s safe to say it left an impression. I was hungry and I needed a meal so I ordered the parmesan chicken and bacon sandwich and a side salad. The sandwich was large and delicious. The flavour of the parmesan stood out but was offset nicely by the fresh tomato and cucumber. The salad was great and came with a really unique mustard dressing. Throw in a cup of Leonhard’s excellent coffee and it made for a lunch that’s pretty hard to beat. To say we enjoyed our afternoon there would be a massive understatement.

Charlottetown has welcomed Leonhard’s Cafe with open arms. In less than five years it’s gone from a humble bread stand to one of the Island’s most original and popular cafes. It’s by every measure a tremendous success in a competitive and fickle industry.

Go Big or Go Home

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague

When I first saw the Orange Lunchbox it sat in the parking lot of a long since abandoned heavy machinery business on University Avenue in Charlottetown. At the time I mistook it for a run-of-the-mill mobile lunch counter and barely gave it a second thought. It wasn’t long before I started hearing reviews about the tasty food being offered at the orange trailer across from UPEI. They served burgers, mostly, with very original toppings, I was told. It was a bit pricey, but generally reviews were positive and I promised myself I’d give it a try the first chance I got—but I never did get there.

In the fall I heard the Lunchbox was moving into the former Alibi location downtown. The move was made and Orange Lunchbox became Big Orange Lunchbox with new hours of operation and a big new space to fill.

Not much has changed in what was the Alibi, save the colour scheme. It is decidedly orange now, with some brown. The bar has been upgraded and there’s more counter space, but it's still a wide open room with seating for about 50 people.

Jinny and I dropped in at about 6 pm on a Friday and the Big Orange Lunchbox was packed. It looked like every table had arrived at the same time and staff were running on instinct. We took a seat at a table for two and waited a few minutes before the breathless waitress handed us menus.

And what a menu it is. There are at least eight burgers, each more original than the next. Take the Birds of Prey, for example. It was my choice on the night in question. It consists of a deep fried, boneless chicken breast, a grilled turkey burger patty, and pulled duck, three birds in all, on a homemade bun with lettuce, cheese, peppers and what I think was garlic aioli. Aside from the fact that three birds on one sandwich borders on inappropriate, I actually enjoyed it. The turkey dominated the flavour, to the point of almost completely masking the duck, but it was a ridiculous and pretty damn tasty sandwich.

There are also several grilled cheese varieties and several types of poutine, which is where Jinny comes in. She chose the Dirty Sanchez, basically nachos with the works with fries instead of nachos. It also features spicy chorizo burger bits rather than the standard chicken of beef. It was fairly spicy but delicious according to Jinny, and Jinny is not easily impressed by poutine.

So, the food was good. The price was a little on the high side, but a premium is expected in a place that prides itself on local, organic ingredients. If there was one downside on the night in question it was the service. Our waitress was all over the place. She was busy, granted, but very disorganized. It was at least 40 minutes after we ordered that our food arrived, and while we waited she asked us how the food had been. Shortly thereafter she delivered a second set of cutlery. To her credit she was very apologetic. She knocked 25 percent off the bill and sent us away with chocolate chip cookies. A sincere apology and some free goodies always make up for the wait.

I’m hopeful for the Big Orange Lunchbox. It’s another in a growing list of new Charlottetown restaurants offering something different from the everyday, and it’s going big in a tough downtown market.

Eating Big at The Top

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague

I’ve been known to eat big on occasion. I can put it away with the best of them under the right circumstances. Any time there’s a turkey dinner, it happens. I almost always overdo it with sushi as well. But when it comes to making a pig of myself, I do my best work at the buffet. I always want a little bit of everything, and when there are twenty offerings, it can be hard to turn one down. I often end up filling my plate two or three times, and loosening my belt two or three notches. So I guess it's a good thing there are only a few buffets around, much as I enjoy them. Generally they are either Chinese or breakfast, but the best of the bunch is neither. It’s at the Top of the Park at Red Shores Racetrack and Casino in Charlottetown.

The Top of the Park is a huge, bright space overlooking the race track’s finish line and para-mutual board. That side of the building is all windows. The room is divided into levels that allow for an unimpeded view of the track, and a not-so-bad view of  the Hillsborough Bridge and Stratford. Each table has it’s own LCD screen for race information, among other things. At Christmas time they put it on the cozy fire channel.

I found myself at The Top of the Park for a work related Christmas meal this past season. Our group of 30 was one of about 25 medium to large groups there for lunch and Christmas cheer. All together I’d say there were 250 to 300 people being served, which was disconcerting to me given the very long lineup. Longer lineups mean a lot of standing around looking at food in the distance, rather than sitting and enjoying it. Fortunately this line moved quickly, and it only took about ten minutes to fill my first plate.

I started with two slices of roast turkey, four slices of roast pork with pesto and lentils, stuffing, mixed vegetables, mashed potatoes and gravy, and some broccoli slaw. It was a satisfying first round. The pork was the highlight. It was slightly more cooked than I would prefer, but the delicious pesto made up for it. I also really liked the savoury stuffing. It was one of  two items to make it onto plate number two along with the broccoli slaw. That plate also included a generous helping of mussels, some pasta, and some basic salad. The mussels were tremendous and went surprisingly well with the stuffing. Who knew?

After some controlled breathing and an adjustment to my pants, I made my way up for a dessert plate. This is usually the highlight of my buffet experience and the Top of the Park was no exception. I chose a larger than necessary slice of coconut cream pie, and an equally absurd helping of sticky date pudding. Both were fantastic but resulted in some uncomfortable groaning, and a greater than usual effort removing my butt from my chair to pay the bill, which was quite reasonable at $16 and change.

I’d go back to the Top of the Park any time for its excellent buffet offerings, although limiting my visits would be beneficial to my health. It’s a great place for a large group, dinner for two, or anything in between. Throw in some harness racing and you’ve got an evening’s food and entertainment covered. Just remember to bring comfortable pants.

This Little Café Can

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague

It’s pretty easy to spend more than ten dollars on lunch. In fact, if you throw in a side of gravy, and a generous tip you’re probably pushing fifteen or even twenty dollars in just about any downtown restaurant. It’s almost as if we’ve been conditioned to think that twenty dollars, a quarter day’s work for thousands of Islanders, is a reasonable price to pay for a plate of food. It doesn’t even have to be that good, and we’ll keep coming back for more. I do it myself and barely bat an eye. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are still restaurants out there that focus on value. Restaurants that trade flashy food and decor for friendly service and simple, delicious food. You’ll find both at Handan’s Café.

Handan and Hurol Karayol moved to PEI from Turkey five years ago. Hurol was an electronics engineer and took computer programming at Holland College while Handan learned English. After graduation Hurol took a job with a local software firm but soon found he and Handan would rather go into business for themselves. Hurol says they decided on a small cafe because of the low overhead, and because Handan was such a wonderful cook. They found a space on Kent Street across from the Charlottetown Hotel and after five months of renovations opened Handan’s Café. It’s a small space with seating for at most twenty people. There are three large booths, a couple of tables and some stools with counter space. You order at the front counter and your food is brought out to you.

Hurol says he and Handan designed the menu to be accessible to every day Islanders, and at the same time retain some of the influences of home. They have sandwiches, paninis, various phyllo pastries, soups, salads and  pasta, along with a wide variety of coffees and desserts including excellent baklava. No one item is more than seven dollars.

On my first visit I ordered a lentil soup and a marinated beef panini. The soup was delicious and hearty and almost a meal in itself. I’m not exactly sure how the beef in the panini was seasoned but it included red peppers and mozzarella cheese and it was excellent. It came with a very tasty shredded carrot and walnut salad and a simple romaine salad. Before tax and tip it was ten cents short of ten dollars. You simply cannot beat that price.

I was back for more the following week. This time I ordered a combo dish with marinated chicken, the same carrot salad, pea and potato salad and borek, which is a delicious phyllo pastry with spinach, feta and onion. The chicken was diced and sauteed with various spices and peppers. It was rich but contrasted nicely with the sweetness of the carrot salad and the tangy flavour of both the borek and the potato salad. It was an all together great meal and a steal of a deal at just under seven dollars before tax and tip.

Handan’s Café is getting busier by the day. They fill up most lunches and do just as much take out business on the side. Hurol and Handan say they want to keep the focus on hospitality and value and they’re succeeding at both. Not only are they two of the friendliest folks around, but they keep their prices affordable, and their food accessible to everyone. That’s a winning combination.

All in One

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague

It is a risky proposition to try to be all things to all people. To attend to the needs of such a wide variety of individuals could drive a business owner mad. That’s why Charlottetown’s newest food venture is so intriguing. Not only is Terre Rouge Bistro Marché a market, bistro and deli, but it has one of the biggest menus I’ve ever seen and some of the most original offerings available in the province.

John Pritchard is no stranger to the kitchens of Prince Edward Island. Over the past few years he has been managing his own, very popular, catering business. He was chef at Dayboat in Oyster Bed Bridge, Island Rock Cafe in Charlottetown, and several restaurants in the Caribbean. He’s even hosted his own cooking show called Red Hot and Ready for Global TV in Toronto. Now he’s trying his hand at restaurant ownership with his new business on Queen Street between the liquor store and the specialty olive oil shop.

Earth tones dominate the very spacious entryway. There are fridges to the right and left and tables along the two front windows. The room is then cut in half by the front counter, deli and barista station with seating for the bistro at the back. You have to stand up to take in all 200 square feet of the menu which is written out in chalk twice, once on each side of the room. It is a very big space.

The market sells a wide variety of specialty and not-so-specialty items including bread, cured meat, roast chicken, chocolates, cheese and gelato, to name a few. The bistro menu is all over the place and includes everything from mac ’n cheese to provençal seafood stew. It is truly a sight to behold. There must be 30 options available at any one time. There are beer, wine, spirits and a wide variety of specialty coffees, but you can’t get a cup of regular coffee. The closest thing is an americana.

Our first trip to Terre Rouge was on the Friday of the teachers’ convention in mid-October, which is quite possibly the busiest lunch of the year in Charlottetown. The bistro was packed but the staff handled it well, which is impressive for a brand new place. I had the roast pork “sammy” with caramelized apple and onion jam, aged cheddar, arugula and mustard with a side of steamed, mixed greens. I wanted the shaved beef sandwich but they had already sold out. The pork sandwich was very good. The meat was moist and tender, the bread was fresh and crusty and the jam offered just the right amount of sweetness. The greens were a touch on the salty side but all together it was a good plate of food. Jinny had the spinach salad with crispy verteche (french smoked bacon), pecans, queso fresco (a type of soft, fresh cheese), and basil mandarin yogurt dressing. She was impressed with the healthy portion and was pleased with the overall freshness and quality of the salad, even though she found it quite rich. With a pint of beer the meal came to just over $27, which is reasonable to say the least.

I flew solo for round two at lunch a few days later and had the beans and toast with a baked pork cassoulet. It was pretty good. The beans were cooked in a savoury tomato sauce and served with a small but tasty portion of pork. I wanted to try the shaved beef, but again it was not available. I’ll chalk that up to early growing pains. For dessert I had the pumpkin crème brulée with spiced biscotti. The pumpkin flavour war subtle and the crème was the perfect texture. With a glass of house red and an espresso the bill came to $32.

For a new establishment that tries to be a number of things all at once, Terre Rouge is off to a good start. The menu is huge, but the selections are intriguing. The market offerings are specialized but accessible to most urban foodies. It’s a gamble, but one I’m sure John Pritchard is ready to take on. He makes great food, and Terre Rouge is one of a kind on the Island.

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PEI Symphony Orchestra

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