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Almost Famous

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague

I feel a little embarrassed. I do my best to cover as much of the Island’s restaurant scene as possible and I try to make sure few stones are left unturned. I admit, there are a couple of dozen restaurants spread all over the Island that I haven’t been to at all, and many more I haven’t written about. I tend to be a little Charlottetown centric, but if I hear about an exciting place out of town I almost always pay a visit. That’s why I’m embarrassed; eight years in and it took Famous Peppers coming to Charlottetown for me to sample the Island’s best pizza.

Unforgivable.

Since 2003 Famous Peppers has been a mainstay in Cardigan. The waterfront restaurant boasted a great view and great pizza and pasta. As many of the ingredients as possible were sourced locally and the pasta was made in house. For almost nine years residents there were treated to one of the Island’s best kept secrets. But this year owners and siblings Dan and Jocelyn Mitchell decided to make the move to Charlottetown. In a recent Guardian article Dan Mitchell cited tough economic times in Kings county and the impending replacement of the Cardigan Bridge as the main contributing factors.

Well, let me be the first to say, welcome to our humble city. I hope you do well here. You make great pizza and I’m so glad you decided to come to town rather than closing the doors all together. I’m also very glad to hear you’ll be re-opening in Cardigan in the summer.

I ordered my first Famous Peppers pizza delivered. I asked the young lady on the phone for a recommendation and she suggested the Cardigan. Fitting, I thought. It included pepperoni, ground beef, green pepper, onion, double smoked bacon, oregano and mozzarella.  I asked her to hold the green pepper and add mushroom and we were good to go. After four dollar delivery charge, and a dash to the store to get cash, I had my medium, slightly altered, Cardigan. It was delicious. Arguably the best crust and sauce on the market. The ingredients were great, especially the bacon and the slightly burnt red onion. All in all, it was the best pizza I’ve had in ages, anywhere.

In the last two weeks, I’ve been back to Famous Peppers twice, and they haven’t let me down yet. They have a good, consistent product. The ingredients are all over the map and include such rarities as mango salsa, honey glazed ham, toasted coconut and my personal favorite, crumbled chorizo sausage. They even have two types of crust; white flour parmesan oregano and Island grown whole wheat. You can also order gluten free.

The one thing I haven’t ordered yet is the pasta. That’s mostly because it’s only served in house. It’s also hand made by the Mitchell’s and sells under the name “Prince Edward Island Pasta Company.” They supply a few local restaurants, but I’m very anxious to try it at Famous Peppers. If it’s anything like their pizza, I have a feeling I’m in for a treat.

There has been a tremendous buzz around Charlottetown about Famous Peppers since it opened its doors here this summer. I’ve had at least a half dozen conversations with people who rave about the place, or who are at very least curious to try it. And rightly so. Famous Peppers makes a great pizza. I think they’ll be around for a long time.

Saturation Point

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague

Over the last ten years there’s been a dramatic jump in the number of high end restaurants in Charlottetown. From Sim’s Corner to Lot 30 it’s hard to turn a corner in this city without passing a restaurant whose dinner menu items average well above twenty dollars a plate. That might be peanuts in a place like Montreal or Vancouver, but here on the Island, prices like that have a way of excluding a large portion of the population. Off the top of my head I can think of at least five restaurants in the downtown core alone that fit the bill. You’d think at some point, Charlottetown would hit saturation, and another high end restaurant would only serve to thin out an already small market. The owners of the city’s newest high end eatery must be confident that saturation point has not yet been achieved.

The Redwater Rustic Grille is located on the first floor of the new Holman Grand Hotel on Grafton Street. It’s a very tastefully decorated space that projects an air of exclusivity. Even the front entrance feels exclusive; the location of the hostess stand prevents customers from actually entering the restaurant before being greeted by staff. The window side of the room is all tables and chairs while the back and side walls are booths that seat four to six. The bar is right in the middle of the space and seems quite suitable for after work cocktails.

On our first visit to the restaurant we made an early reservation so we could catch and early show at the cinemas. We arrived at five and had a glass of wine at the bar before taking our seats. There weren't too many other tables seated because of the early hour, so we were surprised when the hostess sat us at the table closest to the entrance to the kitchen. I don’t understand why they didn’t sit us  somewhere a little quieter? It’s not like the place was packed or anything. Anyway, we got over it and barely noticed the noise by the time we ordered.

The menu at the Redwater Rustic Grille features pizza, pasta and steak as well as a number of other meat and fish dishes. I was surprised to see the beef selections were all organic, grain fed Alberta beef. But then I realized Redwater Rustic Grille is actually a franchise, and that franchise began in Calgary. Hence, the Alberta, not Island, beef. It also features an excellent selection of wine by the bottle.

To start we split the tomato chorizo mussels. They were spicy and delicious, and the broth left over could have stood up well on its own as a pasta sauce or a zesty soup. It made for a lot of bread dipping, needless to say. I bet there was more chorizo than mussels. For our mains Jinny had the field green salad and the seafood chowder. She really liked the chowder, and while the salad was extremely fresh and crispy, it was a bit on the bitter side. For my main I decided to sample the Alberta beef to see how it stood up against our own. I ordered the rib eye and was given a choice of two sides from a list of six. I was also given a choice of three sauces for my steak. I went with baby bok choy and carrots on the side and managed to get two kinds of dipping sauce; peppercorn and barbeque. The steak was excellent and perfectly cooked. The sides were good as well and came out swimming in butter. The sauces were tasty, but a steak that good could be left to stand on its own.

All together, we had a great meal at Redwater. The bill came in at about $135 with tip, and in an Island context, that’s quite expensive. It will be interesting to see how this new high end dining room makes out in a market leaning so close to saturation.

A Wedding Feast

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague

2011 has been an exceptional year for weddings. We’ve had the pleasure of attending five weddings including our own. I’ve been a groomsman twice and a groom once (barring no unforeseen circumstances before the 10th). I’ve been to at least a dozen wedding related social affairs like rehearsal parties, backyard barbeques, golf days, and the like. I’ve had my fair share to drink, and I’ve eaten a lot of food. There was no way to avoid it really. Not that I was trying very hard, because many great times were had, and the food was, for the most part, great. There were two events, however, where the food went from great to exceptional. Those two events were catered by Shane Thompson at peicooks.com.

Thompson graduated from the Culinary Institute in 2001, after 15 years in the family photo lab. From there he worked the line at Off Broadway in Charlottetown before heading out west to work at the Fairmont in Whistler. From there he went on to work several high profile gigs, including a year on the high seas aboard an award-winning private yacht (who knew they had awards for private yachts). Now he’s settled back in PEI with his family, and his new business. He’ll be your personal chef and cook in your home, he’ll do a massive wedding in the backyard, and he’ll do just about anything in between, or so says his website.

The first event he catered, in this our year of the wedding, was a pre-rehearsal backyard social at the mother of the groom’s house. There were about forty guests, give or take. A tent was set up out back and Thompson prepared most of the food in the kitchen. He served an excellent seafood chowder, both spicy lobster and chicken quesidillas, and a wide variety of mouth watering appetizers. So many in fact I’m having a hard time remembering them all. But boy, were they delicious. All of it was delicious.

The second event, a full-scale outdoor wedding buffet, blew my socks off. He started with mussels and optional curry sauce along with his excellent seafood chowder. The main course was seared beef tenderloin done medium or beautifully rare, scallops with curry, amazing, freshly prepared mushroom risotto, potatoes dauphinaise (I think) and salad. Wow, just wow. I was stuffed and awed. I'm pretty sure he and his staff handled the beverage service as well. It was a well run event, in a not-exactly-ideal outdoor environment. It was in a tent, with no oven. I believe he used the oven in the house and several portable burners in the tent to cook it all. Impressive to say the least.

I’m not sure on peicooks.com’s prices. I wasn’t really comfortable asking under the circumstances. The wedding job must have been pricey, but I’m sure the high end meal selections would have something to do with that. Plus Thompson had at least seven staff working alongside him. One of those staff was another accomplished Island chef who’s just returned home. So he has good help, and good help doesn’t come cheap.

I’d highly recommend giving Shane Thompson and peicooks.com a gander the next time you’re planning an event, or just want to impress friends at home. Judging by his ability to hit it out of the park at large scale events, I’m sure he’d be a master with small numbers to feed.

They Earn Their Money

Stop in the Name of Love
Feast Dinner Theatre

Review by Andrew Sprague

As far as summers go, this one’s been a stinker for weather. At least it was until the middle of July. June was like October and July couldn’t decide to be September or, well, July, so it spent a little time being both. Who knows what’s in store for August. Regardless, there have been far too many patio nights lost on account of rain or cold. Thankfully though, great food and entertainment can still be found on those miserable nights not fit for outdoor activity. There are dozens of fantastic restaurants and highly entertaining shows to see all over the Island. There are so many, in fact, it can sometimes be difficult to decide what to do, especially on the weekends.

We were struck with a similar dilemma a few nights back. We wanted food, and we wanted to be entertained, but we couldn’t make up our minds on the restaurant, or the show. So to make the choice easier we decided we wanted them both at the same time. That narrowed the field significantly, and we ended up at the Feast Dinner Theatre. To say we were pleased with our decision would be a vast understatement.

The Feast is now in its 33rd season, which is almost unheard-of for a dinner theatre, or any theatre show  for that matter. It plays at the Charlottetown Hotel and the Brothers Two in Summerside all summer long. The show starts at about 6:30 pm and goes until just before 10 pm. The performers act, dance, sing, and  play a variety of instruments, which is remarkable in itself. But they also have to take food and drink orders, serve said food and drink, clear dishes, and interact with the crowd all while staying in character. I’ve heard of tough gigs before, but none like this. They earn their money.

This years show is “Stop in the Name of Love.” It’s a funny show about a very new couple planning to elope after meeting in Vegas. The music is great, especially the “Bad Romance/Hey Good Looking” mash up. Not your typical marriage of music, but it works very well thanks to the performers. There are plenty of funny lines and great crowd interaction. Beginning to end, it is a very fun show.

The food was pretty good too, considering it’s mass produced quickly for a crowd of 120. Garden salad and bread were on the table when we arrived. The salad was served with a very tasty vinaigrette dressing. Next was steamed mussels. They were very good and not too overcooked, which easily can happen when you cook a hundred pounds at a time. The main was a choice of chicken cordon blue or salmon with lemon sauce, each with a baked potato and veg. I thought the cordon blue was ok, if a bit rubbery, but I wasn’t by any means disappointed. Jinny liked the salmon, and we both liked the strawberry cheesecake for dessert.

It was the entertainment that stood out for us, though. We laughed out loud and sang along to the very eclectic mix of music. The performances were razor sharp. I was very impressed with the wide variety of talent put on display, especially considering the performers remained in character from beginning to end, even when they were clearing away drippy mussel plates. One second they’d be playing guitar, then they’d be on the drums, then they’d bring you a rum and coke. Impressive to say the least. And a steal of a deal at $36.99, not including drinks.

The Feast plays Tuesday to Saturday at 6:30 pm at the Charlottetown Hotel and at Brother’s Two in Summerside. Visit their facebook page at www.facebook.com/feasttheatre for more information.

One of a Kind: The Dunes

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague

Per square foot, there are few places in the world with as many restaurants as Prince Edward Island in July. You can’t throw a rock in this place without hitting a chef, a prep cook or a waiter when the weather’s warm. About half of the restaurants open in the summer stay open for the winter and most of those are in Charlottetown. The rest compete tooth and nail for every tourist dollar they can snatch up in a very competitive environment. And while most offer run of the mill, safe food for the whole family, there are a few that really take it up a notch; a rare few that offer something special. Inn at Bay Fortune comes to mind, as does Victoria Village Inn, Dalvay Hotel, The Pearl in Rustico, The Shipwright’s Café, and Shaw’s Hotel. But there’s one place that offers a dining experience you simply cannot have anywhere else. It’s a place that stands out not only for its absolutely delicious food, but for the environment in which that food is served. If you’re looking for a one of a kind experience this summer, make a reservation at The Dunes in Brackley Beach.

Owner Peter Jansons has spent the better part of his life building a one-of-a-kind property in which to house and display art from all over the world, much of which is created by his own hand. It is a beautiful building and an amazing space, both inside and out. But it’s the restaurant that keeps me coming back. Chef Emily Wells is among the finest chefs in Atlantic Canada and her talents are on full display with every dish that leaves the kitchen. The menu is kept small but eclectic, with a heavy concentration of local food, much of which comes from the garden in the backyard.

Over the years I’ve had at least a half dozen meals at the Dunes. The most recent was on their second day of the new season and it may have been the best meal I’ve had there yet. To start us off the kitchen sent out two free tasting samples, one was a very light and tasty quinoa salad, the other a delicious and rich mushroom curry soup. We followed that up with a lobster spring roll, which was served with two sauces each as scintillating as the other. For our main courses Jinny had the aforementioned soup along with a beautiful and fresh seasonal salad with asparagus, fiddle heads and goats cheese, and I had the beef tenderloin served with a pancetta cream sauce, seasonal vegetables and roasted potatoes. We were both more than impressed. After a few moments of digestion we decided dessert would be appropriate, if a bit gluttonous. We chose the bread pudding, which is not only delicious, but almost inappropriately large after what was already a very big meal.

The only drawback, after all the beautiful food and atmosphere, was the total on the bill. Three glasses of wine, an appetizer between us, two mains, dessert and an espresso ran $129 including a generous tip to reflect the excellent service. For me, that’s expensive, no two ways about it. Mind you, we could have had a glass of wine and a main course each, and the bill would have been around $70. But even still, that’s pricey for us, and those prices help limit our visits to the Dunes. In a way though, that limitation makes the Dunes a special destination for us. And it’s one that we will continue to enjoy through our eyes and through our taste buds for years to come.

Major Renovations

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague

Not all that long ago Off Broadway was considered by many people to be one of the finest restaurants on Prince Edward Island. Its heyday was in the mid-eighties. I didn’t become completely familiar with it until the mid nineties. By that time it was still widely regarded as a great place for an upscale meal and a bottle of wine. When 42nd Street opened on the second floor of the building in ’97-ish, the restaurant experienced a mild resurgence that lasted the next decade or so, as the space became home to many regular bar customers who helped ease the pain of slower than normal winter days. But things change fast in Charlottetown’s ever-expanding restaurant industry, and for one reason or another, the Murphy Group decided last year it was time to say goodbye to Off Broadway. After an absolutely monstrous renovation, it is now reborn as Daniel Brenan Brickhouse.   

DB Brickhouse describes itself as an artisan kitchen focused on local products with a sizable wine collection. I’ve been twice since it opened in late April.

The renovations are remarkable. The kitchen has moved and is now fully open to the first floor of the restaurant. The first and second floors are now connected by a staircase that required a large hole to be cut in the centre of the second floor. It looks great and seems somewhat roomier to me. That’s probably because the second floor is booths and tables now rather than lounge furniture. That furniture is now on the third floor in what used to be one of the coolest loft apartments anywhere. It is known as Marc’s Stuio after the late Marc Gallant, who renovated the original warehouse in the 1970s and, for a time, had his art studio in the loft.

The menu is absolutely all over the place. In two trips we tried the garden salad, fries and aioli, pulled pork sliders (served on mini burger buns), lamb rogan josh (a medium heat curry), and fish cakes served with charred corn, scallion rocket pesto and smoked serrano pepper ailoi. Some of the other notable items that went unsampled included lobster poutine (made with a cream sauce rather than gravy, thank god!), edamame, sprouted quinoa vegetable rolls, Korean style beef cheek, caponata crusted tuna, and a vegetable “beggar's purse” phyllo pastry.

Anyway, the food was pretty good, but expensive. The fish cakes were the deep fried kind, and the combination of the three sauces, served over, under and alongside the fish cakes, made for a relatively tasty combo. The lamb curry was very flavourful and was served in a bowl separate from the rice, which was also in a bowl. I felt this was one bowl too many. I don’t know why. Jinny really liked the salad, especially because it included curly cut beet slivers. The pork sliders were alright, but I was reminded of the old “Where’s the beef?” commercial. Let’s just say the buns dominated the slider landscape. We didn’t get around to dessert either time. The wine selection is ample, but like the food, expensive. There isn’t a glass on the menu under $7.75. Thankfully, they solve this problem by offering you a smaller glass at a cheaper price. Wait, did I just say thankfully? A glass of wine each, two apps, a curry, and a salad with tip ran $105.

The single best reason to try the DB Brickhouse is to see the renovation. You won’t recognize the place. The food is good, but expensive. The wine is ample, but expensive. I’m on a tight budget and I have to feel like I’m getting value for my money. And while I liked the food, the bill made me think of all the renovations I have to do at home.

Burger Capital of Canada

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague

PEI Burger Love has been a smashing success. For those not familiar, it’s a month-long promotion put on by the PEI Cattle Producers, The Department of Agriculture, PEI Flavours and Fresh Media in partnership with fourteen restaurants. Each restaurant creates a signature burger, made with 100% Island beef, which they offer as a special for the entire month of April. They post their recipes on-line at www.peiburgerlove.ca with a picture of the burger. Customers try the burger and rate it out of five at the website. Simple concept. Huge success.

Within days of the launch on April 1st, restaurants were being overrun with burger orders. I talked to one owner who said a full, twenty-seven burgers went out the first night alone. And what delicious burgers. Take, for instance, the East West Burger at the Merchantman Pub. It consists of a teriyaki glazed burger with sweet relish, smoked bacon, basil, greens, coleslaw, roasted red pepper, wasabi mayo and pickled ginger. It was my second burger of the month and it blew my mind. No two bites were exactly the same, which is a negative for some, but not for me. It was awesome. On the flip side, where a burger tastes the same all the way through, we have the Dubfribulator from the Olde Dublin Pub. It included a generous portion of Guinness braised pork belly, cumin gouda, sprouts and onion marmalade on a pork-belly-and-beef-fat toasted cheddar bagel. That’s right. This burger was a little on the savoury side, but oh, so delicious, and by far the least sloppy of all burgers sampled by press time.

Frankly, every burger was delicious, at least the four I managed to eat by the time the article was due. The other two were the Pizazz Burger at the Alibi, and the Holy Cow Burger at Gahan House. I’m betting on at least five more before the month’s out. I would try to run the table, but fourteen burgers in a month seems daunting to say the least, and the 3-D Burger from Hunter’s Ale House, a triple decker, sounds down right terrifying.

I think PEI Burger Love is one of the best local food and restaurant promotions ever held on the Island. What better way to promote a beef industry that’s seen its share of tough times of late, and what better way to get people out to restaurants during a slow time of year (ECMA’s not withstanding). Every restaurant person I spoke with was highly impressed by the number of burgers leaving the kitchen and by the number of new faces in the restaurant looking for burgers. It’s been a fantastic promotion.

In fact, I think Burger Love should be held over. Why not keep it going for the summer and expand it to restaurants all over the Island who have been left out so far? It would be much easier for someone to attempt to try every burger over four months rather than four weeks. I think the tourists would be all over it. The restaurants wouldn’t have to make any big changes because they have most of the ingredients in stock anyway. Beef sales would rise a bit. The web guys would have to do a bit more work and a few more advertising dollars would have to be invested but I think if it was done right, PEI could become the Burger Capital of Canada, if it’s not already. We have the quality product. We have the restaurants. We have the enthusiasm of the public. I think it can be done. If it’s not extended, it should at least come back next April. I could live with that.

Breaking with Routine

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague

Papa Joe’s is a Prince Edward Island dining institution. This matter is not up for debate. Go there at lunch or supper any day of the week and you’ll see one of the busiest restaurants around. Award-winning Executive Chef Irwin MacKinnon’s menu is one of the most diverse and robust on the Island. The pot roast is one of my personal favourites. I wouldn’t touch the liver and onions, but that has nothing to do with Papa Joe’s, merely my personal phobia. Everything in between rates good to great including the Lebanese selections, which stand up against any in Charlottetown. The menu could be described as Canadian-Lebanese home food, but that wouldn’t explain the chipotle scallop penne or the black bean salsa and chips.

Regardless, Papa Joe’s is one of the Island’s most established restaurants, as evidenced by a slightly elderly average client. The service is good, the price is right and there are no surprises.

No surprises, that is, except for Wednesday curry.

You might remember the Royal Tandoor on University Avenue from a few years back. It served authentic Indian cuisine. It wasn’t open long. Indian food has proven to be a tough sell in Charlottetown over the years, and Royal Tandoor was no exception. The chef there chose to look for work rather than leave the Island and he ended up at Papa Joe’s. His name is Bindeshwer Mandal and he makes a mean curry. Barb Jabbour, daughter of the aforementioned Papa Joe, could probably tell you about the first time she had it, because it made an impact on her and it wasn’t long before curry was a sporadic special.

“Indian curry is the special?? Margaret, I think I’m having a stroke!”

Okay, so maybe the regulars weren’t quite that surprised. And maybe the Jabbours were onto something, because the curry was good, not to mention the homemade naan bread and onion baji, and they were getting a ton of compliments on it. Their curry specials were working out so well that about a year ago, they decided to make Wednesday curry day. In that year they’ve had to constantly increase the amount of curry prepared in advance because they have too often run out over the lunch hour alone. They’ve also noticed a big upswing in their east Indian clientele which is an indication that its authentic stuff, or at least as close as you can get here.

I was in for Wednesday curry at lunch a couple of weeks ago and was I impressed. The special that day included naan bread, onion baji, rice, potato and pea curry, and lemon chicken curry. The naan bread was buttery and delicious, the potato pea was spicy but not overbearing, the baji was crispy and very tasty as was the homemade hot sauce. The lemon chicken curry was exceptional. It was tangy and not nearly as salty as the average curry. I’ve never had anything quite like it, actually. I think about it often. I’m probably thinking about it right now. I’m anxious to have it again, but I don’t know when that will be because the curry changes week to week.

There’s something I really like about a traditional curry special at a traditional home food restaurant like Papa Joe’s. It shows the owners are willing to take a chance on a great product even though they have winning formula already in place. It shows there is room, albeit a small room, for traditional Indian cuisine on the Island. And it shows a change can be a wonderful thing, no matter how attached you are to the routine.

Events Calendar

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Some Upcoming Events

Home for the Holidays

Justin Shaw comedy show December 21
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LIGHT

A Solstice Celebration with Becca Griffin and Rebecca Parent December 14 & 15
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Come Home to Us

Christmas programming at the Celtic Performing Arts Centre December 14, 15 & 16
Celtic Performin [ ... ]

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