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Good Eating

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague

There aren’t many couples on the Island with as much experience in the restaurant business as Hooie Larter and Ian MacIsaac. MacIsaac was a chef for years at Sirenella Ristorante in Charlottetown, not to mention stints at the Claddagh Room and Off Broadway. Larter has worked all over the place including the Merchantman Pub, the Island Rock Cafe in its heyday, and Casa Mia, the old Casa Mia, where Formosa Tea House was most recently. Between them, they logged over 55 years experience in restaurants all over the city. That makes them feel a touch old, but it hasn’t prevented them from beginning a new phase of their service industry careers as the proud owners of the Island’s newest Italian eatery.

Buono Mangia, which translates to good eats in Italian, is on Kent Street in Charlottetown in the former Mr. Big Subs, next to the City Taxi stand which also used to be, among other things, Mr. Big Subs. It’s a small space, but quaint and tastefully decorated with black marble topped tables and padded, black wooden chairs. There’s seating for about twenty-two people all together. There are a couple of half booths as well as one very intimate full booth clearly not meant for large individuals. It’s a bright, clean and simple space.

Just about everything on the menu is made from scratch on site including every variety of pasta, the sausage, all broths and sauces, all condiments and breads, and surprisingly, the ricotta and goat cheese (I asked, but they have no room for a goat on site). Even the meat for the meat sauce is ground in house, and all of it by MacIsaac himself. In fact, there are only two staff at Buono Mangia and they’re the owners. I can’t imagine how much time they spend in the kitchen for prep alone. The results are impressive.

My father and I were in for lunch in mid-September. Most lunch items were just north, or just south of ten dollars (dinner menu entrees run fourteen to twenty). There were five pasta selections including lasagna, cannelloni, linguine and mushroom, and two fettuccines; carbonara and sausage. They also serve minestrone, seafood chowder, caesar salad, pizza, chicken parmesan, and pan fried haddock.

Dad decided on sausage fettuccine in a spicy cream sauce, that day’s special. I had a bite and it was pretty tasty. The sauce had a fair bit of zip and dad was quick to point out that it didn’t “build on him.” The sausage was pretty good too with hints of fennel and nutmeg. I had the chicken parmesan. It was delicious. The chicken portion was substantial to say the least. It was seasoned just enough to add flavour without masking the taste of the chicken. The tomato sauce was tangy without being overpowering and there was more than enough cheese. Above all else, I was impressed with the side of fettuccine alfredo. The pasta was beautifully tender. I savoured every bite. I was left wondering if there’s a better ten dollar plate of food available in Charlottetown.

The ice cream and cookie, the banana sticky date pudding and the apple cobbler were each tempting in their own way, and they were all entirely homemade, but time and fullness prevented us. The bill without drinks was 21 dollars.

You have to admire the effort these two restaurant veterans are putting in at Buono Mangia. By preparing everything from scratch they have to put more time and effort into a business where substantial time and effort are required to begin with. At Buono Mangia that dedication results in delicious, healthy food at a great price.

Digging It Down East

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague

Unless you’re a farmer, the summer of 2012 has been the best summer for weather on the Island in recent memory. It’s been magnificent. I’ve been to the beach at least a dozen times, out of sheer necessity more often than not. I’ve golfed a few times and I’ve had a good many cold drinks on patios. The one thing I hadn’t done before the second weekend in August was camp, and boy, were Jinny and I looking forward to it. We booked a spot at Northumberland Provincial park for Friday and Saturday. Then the forecast changed for the first time since the middle of July. It didn’t rain Friday, but did it ever come down on Saturday. Having no recourse, we secured our campsite and headed to Georgetown for supper at my new favourite restaurant down east, Clamdiggers Beach House and Restaurant.

Clamdiggers is on West Street in the former train station. The building, both inside and out, appears completely renovated and restored. The 1800 square foot patio overlooks the Brudenell River. It might be the best patio on the Island for size and scenery. It’s a beautiful spot. The interior has its merits as well. It’s split in two by the kitchen and bathrooms, with the bar on one side and the dining room on the other. Both sides are tastefully decorated with lantern style lighting, historical photos and hanging baskets. There’s a staircase up to a balcony in the dining room where the view changes from beautiful to breathtaking, although the staff say it gets pretty hot up there in the summer.

Chef Norman Day has assembled a menu at Clamdiggers that serves two purposes. The first is to tap into the tourist market by featuring fresh seafood and steak at mid-to-high-end prices. Most dishes on the dinner menu run twenty two to thirty dollars, but both the steak and crab and the seafood platter are closer to fifty. The second purpose is to cater to locals and families. The Island fare section of the menu features several varieties of fried fish, a steak sandwich and a club wrap all at reasonable prices. I saw one order of fried clams and fries come out of the kitchen and you couldn’t possibly have fit more food on one plate. The one thing lacking is a decent wine selection.

We started with the coconut curry mussels with fresh lime. The mussels were cooked well and while the broth was a fitting accent to the mussels, we found it a little salty on its own. All the same, it’s hard to go wrong with curry and mussels. For my main I ordered the daily seafood pasta. That night’s version featured a little bit of every sea creature in the kitchen in a lobster cream sauce served over fettucini. It was a lot of food, and a lot of lobster cream sauce, but it was good, and I was really impressed with the generous offering of seafood. Jinny had the chicken stuffed with goat cheese and sun dried tomatoes with a bruscetta cream sauce mashed potato and vegetable. She moaned more than she spoke while eating and for while afterward, so I can only imagine she really enjoyed it and it was more than enough food. We decided to split dessert—a flourless chocolate espresso torte—and take it with us hoping the rain would clear and we’d get to enjoy it by the fire.

When we got back, the rain held off just long enough to get the fire going. After an adjustment or two to the tarp we were able to enjoy the torte in relative comfort for a few fleeting moments before the rain overtook us. I remember the torte being very tasty.

Clamdiggers is open through September and maybe longer. If you’re down east and hungry, it’s a perfect spot for lunch or supper. Enjoy the view.

Worst Kept Secret

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague

The first two weeks of July were among the finest stretches of summer weather we’ve had in years. The sun shone and the rain abated for one of the longest streaks in recent memory. At its peak there were fire restrictions and water conservation warnings, both of which are fairly rare on the Island. It wasn’t great for farmers, but the first two weeks of July were perfect for beaching, golfing, sailing, or for escaping the heat by sitting down to a good meal and a cool beverage.

I was on vacation for the second, and sunnier of the two weeks. I spent a lot of time on the golf course, at the beach and at a table somewhere, stuffing my gorge. The Pearl, Sims Corner and Sutherland’s were some of the stand outs. But after a trip to Watts’ Beach on the final Sunday of vacation Jinny and I sat down to food at what could be the Island’s worst kept secret. It’s a mainstay on the north shore for a solid three months every year. It’s a destination for those who know about its famous fish and chips and its fresh and delicious lobster roll. And, if you’re lucky, while you’re digging into your deep fried clams, you’ll get to see a young fellow take a fine from a park warden for jumping off the bridge.

There are a lot of reasons to visit Richard’s Fresh Seafood at Covehead Harbour. The first is the view. From the ground floor patio at Richard’s you look across the wharf, past the boats and onto Covehead Bay and the dunes alongside. The view is even better on the rooftop patio especially when the sun begins to set in the evening. We watched a kite surfer zip back and forth across the bay on a recent visit. It can be like watching a show while you dine, in more ways than one.

The second and equally important reason is the food. It’s cheap, plentiful, and downright delicious. Aside from the offerings referred to above, Richard’s serves mussels, scallops, a variety of fish sandwiches including a spectacular lobster club, a burger and a salad. The fresh cut fries come in huge servings that must be meant for two. This year Richard’s also has Gahan beer on tap, which is apparently the theme of the summer all over PEI. You can also get an ice cream or a pretty stand-up milkshake.

It’s not surprising that a quality establishment like Richard’s can be a pretty busy spot by times, and that brings us to our third reason; service. There is almost always a line up at the counter for orders. To keep the line moving each table is given one of these electronic coasters that start buzzing and jumping around your table when your order is ready. Richard’s’ system works wonders when line ups of over 20 customers occur on a very regular basis.

The prices are pretty good too. Two beer, a lobster roll, and two orders of fries cost us around $33 plus a tip for the super quick service. Those aren’t bad prices on an Island where making a dollar in the summer is a way of life.

I make it to Richard’s at least once a summer and you should too. It can be a bit nuts-o on the weekends, but it’s a great place to go on those summer evenings where fried food and pints seems appropriate, especially if you want a good view and a cool breeze off the water.

Ta-Ke My Money

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague

I had my first bite of sushi when I was about twenty-six years old. It wasn’t entirely my fault it took that long. When I first heard people ate raw fish I imagined something resembling Gollum biting into a still flapping salmon. My parents weren’t keen on the idea either, so for most of my young life no one set me straight. Only in my early twenties did I first begin to understand there were different kinds of sushi and different methods of preparation.

Even if that had been enough to convince me to try sushi I was still mostly out of luck. None of my friends knew how to make it or had the necessary gear, and for most of my life there wasn’t a sushi restaurant on PEI. I don’t even remember where I had it first, but I haven’t been able to stop since. Luckily for me, four or five sushi restaurants have opened in Charlottetown over the last two years. Ta-Ke Sushi on Queen Street has received the largest percentage of my money thus far.

Ta-Ke has a huge menu. It offers dozens of nigiri (fish on rice), maki (roll) and sashimi (raw fish on its own) dishes. Ta-Ke also serves a number of soba and udon noodle dishes, tempura, and teriyaki. To top it off there are four or five Korean dishes including bee bim bap, which is like a beef stir fry of sorts, and jap chae, which includes yam noodles, vegetables and beef.

Each time we’ve been to Ta-Ke the server has started us off with a complimentary appetizer consisting of a bean sprout salad, a yam noodle salad and two small bowls of miso soup. They make a delicious way to start, but they can, and often do, contribute to over eating. Not that I’m complaining, it’s an excellent touch.

From there I usually go with an assortment of sushi, or one sushi dish and one hot dish. My favourites from the sushi menu include the dynamite roll with tempura shrimp, avocado, cucumber and tobiko, the spicy tuna maki with green onion, tempura crisps and special hot sauce and the giant maki with tuna, salmon, cucumber, crab, ikura, tobiko and avocado. I’m still not a huge fan of straight up raw fish, but I’m trying.

So far my hot food experiences have been mixed. I really liked the bee bim bap. It had a great flavour and just the right amount of heat. The tempura udon, on the other hand, was hard to eat and the tempura turned into a sloppy mess after sitting in the broth for too long. It was tasty; don’t get me wrong, it just had some texture issues. Either that or I had texture issues. Regardless, I go to Ta-Ke for the sushi, the hot food is a bonus.

I always manage to order just enough food at Ta-Ke to stuff me to an uncomfortable degree. The bill for Jinny and I usually runs about $80 including a drink each. It’s pretty good value considering I make a complete pig of myself every time I’m there. It always looks like a ton of food when it comes out of the kitchen. Half way through I think I’ll be taking some home. I never do because there’s never any left.

Burger Lover

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague

On the first Saturday of April I was at Gahan House for an afternoon constitutional. At the time PEI Burger Love had just entered its sixth day. I asked Brent Burns, the Manager at Gahan, how many burgers he’d sold during the first week. He paused for a moment, gave a sly grin, and said that since the first of April, just short of five hundred burgers had left the kitchen (1300 by press time). That’s about eighty burgers a day during what has firmly established itself as the single best local food promotion on Prince Edward Island. Burger Love is huge, and Islanders are loving it.

This is the second year for the promotion. Last year it went over like gangbusters. Fourteen restaurants all over the Island took part and most smashed records for burger sales. Twenty two restaurants signed on to Burger Love this year. From Tyne Valley to Morell special burgers were offered for the month of April. I had six. It required a concerted effort to do so. By press time, I’d heard three separate stories about individuals who’d already had all twenty two burgers. Considering some burgers include over sixteen ounces of Island beef, that’s as impressive as it is gluttonous.

My first burger this year was the B2 Pickler at Brothers Two in Summerside. Two deep fried pickles with dill sauce, caramelized onions, southwest mayo, brie and monterey jack. It was so heavy, and so sloppy I could barely finish. It tasted good, but the richness and texture were overwhelming.

My second burger was Exaclibur (cue trumpets) at the Pilot House. This more traditional entry included brew braised onions, double smoked bacon, gouda cheese, lettuce and tomato on a pretzel bun, with a side of peppercorn onion rings. It was a monster, but it held together nicely and  was delicious in its simplicity.

Number three was the Mayan at last year’s Burger Love co-winner, the Merchantman Pub. They scored huge points for originality last year, and went big on unique ingredients this year as well. They included guacamole, white bean puree, cherry tomato salsa, tortillas, corn and pickled jalepenos. It was once again the most interesting burger I had, but it lacked the pop of last year’s winner.

The fourth burger was my favourite this year, the Goddess at Papa Joe’s. This middle eastern inspired burger featured feta, garlic paste, banana peppers, lettuce, tomato, seasoned beef and tangy zatar seasoning. The Goddess was godly. So good. It scored big on ingredients and for holding together better than any burger I had this year.

Burger Five was the Executive at DB Brickhouse. This burger featured smoked bacon, peppercorn gouda, lettuce, spicy aioli and crispy onions on a pretzel bun. I found it a little sweet but tasty. It was good, but didn’t stand out like the Goddess.

Last but not least was the 24/7 at Casa Mia. This burger had it all. You could make breakfast from it using the bagel bun, fried egg and aged cheddar You could make lunch with the greens, grilled tomato and candied bacon. And you could make supper with the Island beef smothered in maple espresso barbeque sauce. Add a mystery green sauce to the mix and you have a burger for all occasions. It was awesome.

April was my favourite month long before Burger Love came along. Now I look forward to it like never before. The burgers this year were tantalizing. New ingredients included lobster tails, tempura battered burger patties, deep fried banana peppers, pulled pork and tumeric hummus. This speaks volumes about how seriously the chefs are taking the promotion, and about how Burger Love has taken off on Prince Edward Island. I’m already looking forward to next April.

Next year we will assign Andrew to sample ALL the burgers—editor.

Tournament Town

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague

Back in February Jinny and I saw an ad for a Ray Bonneville concert being held at the Harbourfront Theatre in Summerside. Bonneville is a tremendous blues/folk singer and guitar player. He’s been part of our soundtrack for a few years now so we were pretty excited to get the chance to see him live. We booked tickets for the Saturday night show and decided we’d make a night of it by having supper in Summerside. It wasn’t long before we found out two other couples we knew were heading to the show, and we decided to make it supper for six.

Summerside is a sports town, first and foremost. Some call it the tournament capital of Canada. It’s got a beautiful waterfront, dozens of massive homes (known as the ‘silver fox homes’), and its residents are some of the finest and friendliest of any city in the world. But one thing it’s not known for is its restaurants. It’s been a restaurant vacuum of sorts for a long, long time. There are a few places around that have been mainstays over the years, like the Linkletter, Brothers Two and the Deckhouse Pub, but for the most part they specialize in home cooking or pub food. There’s Chinese food, pizza, a few take outs, and all kinds of fast food, but original restaurants with original menu items have been very hard to come by over the years.

We were in charge of picking the restaurant so we consulted Facebook, and put out a call for Summerside’s best meal. The overwhelming suggestion was Five Eleven West at Credit Union Place. I thought it was fitting that the suggested restaurant was located in a rink/pool/casino/racetrack. We were going to tournament town, after all.

The six of us met at the restaurant two hours ahead of showtime. I was immediately impressed by the atmosphere. It had an upscale ambiance with leather seats and benches, mood lighting and tasteful decor. It gave you the feeling you weren’t at Credit Union Place at all, save the ever-so-slight aroma of pool water and rink.

The menu at Five Eleven West is relatively small, somewhat cautious, and at the same time, diverse. The appetizers include scallops, shrimp, mussels and a few pub favorites like quesidillas and sweet potato fries. Main courses include one salmon, one haddock, one chicken, one pasta, two steaks, two burgers, four salads and a few other favourites. Themes range from Greek, to Italian to home cooking. Everything is very reasonably priced.

Jinny and I decided to split the Thai mussels for the appetizer. They were tasty, if a little undercooked, flavoured with a coconut curry cream sauce that had a familiar taste I really like. Jinny had the grilled Greek chicken breast with tzatiki sauce and olive tapenade for her main. She really liked the chicken, and the freshness of the side vegetables. I chose the grilled vegetable and basil pesto penne. It was good too. The pesto didn’t exactly jump out at me, but the abundant vegetables and tender chicken made up for it in spades. We opted out of dessert as did the rest of the gang. Including drinks the bill was $107 with tip.

We left Five Eleven West satisfied and ready for Ray. All told it was a great evening. The food was good, the show was great, and Summerside proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s so much more than the tournament capital of Canada.

A Time to Winterdine

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague

Winterdine has emerged as one of the best restaurant and local food promotions in the province. The inaugural event, organized by Downtown Charlottetown Inc., was held last year and it was a hit by all standards. During the last weekend in January and the first weekend in February each of 18 Charlottetown restaurants offer a three course meal for either $25 or $35. It’s a great way to get people out for a bite during an otherwise slow time of year.

The menus were wide ranging this year. Take the Gahan House, for example. In true pub fashion it offered wings, a burger and an apple tart for $25. That’s good value. At the other end of the spectrum was Redwater Rustic Grille. It offered two choices for each course. Highlights included cauliflower soup and salt cod fritter with truffle oil, beef short rib hash with roasted root vegetable and soft polenta, and coconut and kaffir lime crème brulée. At only $35 it was also a great deal. After a lot of thought, Jinny and I decided on The Dundee Arms Inn on Pownal Street.

The Dundee is a pillar in Charlottetown. We go there for breakfast fairly often, as well as the odd lunch, but for some reason we rarely choose the Dundee for supper. That changed when we saw the offerings for Winterdine. There were three choices for both the appetizer and the main, and two for dessert. Neither of us were sure what we were going to have ahead of time because the choices all sounded great.

It took a while, but we managed to decide after about 20 minutes. For starters I had a lobster and shrimp bisque garnished with Island crab and a shrimp spring roll. It was rich but delicious and the portion size was perfect. Jinny ordered slow roasted pork with cracklings and a potato dumpling. Jinny really liked it and it made me want more cracklings. Who knew I’d be such a fan of crispy fried pork skin and fat.

For her main course Jinny chose king scallops in a bowtie pasta and vodka rose sauce with portabella mushrooms and baby spinach. It sounds rich but she really liked it and didn’t find the flavours overpowering at all. I had the tenderloin with gorgonzola walnut butter, bacon jus, potato and veg. In case you missed that, I said bacon jus. Need I say more? I didn’t think so.

The kitchen nailed the portion sizes and left each of us with just enough space for dessert. Jinny had a pear and walnut phyllo with honey date drizzle and chantilly cream. It was good, but it simply paled in comparison to my fried ravioli nutella with house made vanilla bean ice cream, chocolate cookie crumble and hazelnuts. I can’t even describe how good it was. It made me want to buy stock in Nutella and it wasn’t even the best part of dessert.

I’m a bit picky when it comes to espresso, you see. If it comes too soon I drink it all before dessert arrives. If it comes late, dessert could be gone. Let’s just say I make both espresso and dessert disappear at an alarming rate. So, I asked the waiter if he could bring the espresso just after dessert was served. For fun, I suggested that about twenty seconds after dessert would be perfect. We laughed. Then he brought dessert, and exactly twenty seconds and two bites later, the espresso arrived. That was impressive to say the least. Well done.

All in all it was a fantastic meal. And it made us both anxious to see what next year’s Winterdine will have to offer.

Happy for an Hour

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague

I’m a big fan of happy hour on Fridays. The end of the week comes and I almost always make my way out for a couple of pints after work. For me, it’s a great way to finish the week, and a great way to wind down. Most Fridays I see the same guys at the same place. But a couple of times over the last two months, I’ve ditched the boys for happy hour with the wife. And since I was doing happy hour with Jinny I ditched the usual haunt too, and in the process, found a couple of great happy hour specials.

The happy hour special is nothing new, granted. It’s been a mainstay at bars and pubs forever. They call it a loss leader; you lose money on in the hope that people come, buy other items and make up the difference, if not a little bit more. But humans are creatures of habit. If your routine dictates Fridays at a particular location, it’s rare to darken the door of another pub. And it’s a shame. On both occasions, we pigged out, had a couple of drinks, and did it super cheap.

The first happy hour was at St. James’ Gate on Kent Street. From 4 to 6 pm they have two-for-one appetizers. The Gate offers up many of the usual selections like wings, mussels and sweet potato fries, as well as a few surprises like saganaki, Japanese pot stickers, and ginger beef. We decide on four; the feta bruscetta, mussels, spinach and artichoke dip and spring rolls with sweet chilli sauce. Like I said we pigged out. I really liked the bruscetta, and the rest was pretty good too. We had a $20 gift certificate, so on top of the cheap prices on apps, we walked out after three drinks each just $40 dollars poorer. That’s great value.

Another place where the drinks can be cheap is Globe World Flavours on Victoria Row. Until 6 pm the globe offers $4 drinks. That includes bottles of beer, pints of draft, shots and house wine. Now, I know that’s not a really cheap price, but in a typical restaurant, drinks range from $5 for beer and shots, right up to $8 for premium wine, liquor and draught. In this case Globe offers not only one wine, but any draft, beer or shot including martinis for $4. It’s a good deal. The food is pretty good too and all over the map, as you’d expect from the name of the restaurant. We decide on the Globe platter which includes bruscetta, honey barbeque wings, a generous portion of nachos and the Globe’s delicious calamari. We were stuffed and sporting a healthy glow by the time we settled the very reasonable $40 tab.

My all-nighters are few and far between these days. I only go out late on certain special occasions. Otherwise it just doesn’t appeal to me. But I’m still a social animal. So, I’ve found a comfortable nook on my Friday happy hours. I get to have a couple of pints, fire abuse at my friends, like my friends do, and get the social time I need to avoid insanity. I’m home by seven, in bed by ten and as happy as a clam. If that appeals to you the way it does to me, find yourself a good happy hour special and enjoy the benefits the loss leader can provide.

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