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Cold Cuts and Chowder

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague

Every year on January 1st hundreds of well-dressed Islanders hit the streets of Charlottetown for an annual event like no other. This event allows regular Joe citizens to hob nob with the political, business and cultural elite of the Island. This event also provides an excellent opportunity for those citizens to get drunk on bagged wine and Hermit Sherry in the middle of the afternoon. Sounds fun doesn’t it. I’m pleased to report that the New Year’s Levees are alive and well and are still drawing big, drunken crowds of respectable Islanders.

The New Years Levee tradition dates back to the 1600s. It was a way for government officials to wish the populace a happy new year and to thank them for their support. It began with the Lieutenant Governor, but since then other organizations have become part of the tradition, and today there are at least a dozen levees held in Charlottetown by various groups and individuals including the Masons, the Bishop and even the Sports Page Club. At each location a receiving line is formed, handshakes and hellos are delivered by the brass of each group or organization, then refreshments are served to the guests. It’s like a gigantic pub crawl, except the attendees are wearing their Sunday best rather than obnoxious t-shirts, and the drinks are often free.

This year’s plan was to travel to the levees with a group of friends. We were to meet at the Lieutenant Governor’s at 10 am. One friend volunteered to be our driver for the day and the rest of us pledged to drink his share at each location. It was a great plan.

I arrived at 10 am and the receiving line was already out the side door of Fanningbank. Halfway through the line I noticed my friends making their way to the exit. They had already been through the line and were approximately 20 minutes ahead of me. They would have remained so throughout the day if I’d stayed to accept greetings from His and Her Honour, so I skipped out of the line-up and joined my group. Our next stop was city hall.

At city hall we were greeted by the mayor, city councilors and several high ranking city employees. Refreshments included coffee and tea, white wine, a variety of sweets, cold cuts, cheese and crackers. Years ago they served lobster sandwiches, but in this time of fiscal austerity, I suppose they would have been seen as an unnecessary extravagance. That’s also where we ran into Wessie the Cat. He was into the wine and was being a bit of a spitty talker so we headed for the door. The next stop was UPEI, where they served fruit juice, sweets and a variety of cold cut sandwiches. After that, HMCS Queen Charlotte. There they served more cold cuts and cheese as well as moose milk, which is a soothing mixture of egg nog, rum and ice cream. It was delicious and I went back for seconds.

For the next three hours we made another 6 or 7 stops. Some of the highlights included Stratford Town Hall where the red wine was abundant, and intoxication began to take hold, the Brighton compound where the regimental band played pop music’s greatest hits and where everyone came for the seafood chowder, the Mason’s lodge, where again the wine poured freely and intoxication became a difficult word to say, the Bishop’s residence, where the aforementioned Hermit Sherry was served, and the Government of PEI levee, where we snuck into the private room for a few beverages with the Island’s political elite. We ended the day at the Fire Hall for a dance. I hung up my levee jacket at 7 pm, drunk and exhausted from a marathon of a day.

I recommend the New Years Levees to anyone with the intestinal fortitude to take them in. I also recommend a dry new years eve, because cold cuts don’t exactly soothe a hung over stomach.

Sold on Seoul Food

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague

Road construction can often lead to exciting and unusual experiences. That may sound silly, but it’s true. For one, road construction can cause even the most level-headed, easy going individual to spew expletives at a rate high enough to shame a drunken fisherman. Very exciting. Also, it can cause what I like to call ‘time expansion delirium’ where time slows to a crawl and fifteen minutes pass in what feels like three and a half hours. Unusual for sure. For me, on one occasion in this the year of asphalt, road construction led to an unusual, delicious meal and a new experience all at once.

The Hillsborough Bridge was in construction gridlock on the afternoon in question. So rather than wait in line like all the other Stratford commuters, Jinny and I decided to stay in town and have a bite to eat. We’d been talking for a while about visiting a new restaurant on University Avenue and this seemed like a perfect opportunity to do so. So we headed to Seoul Food, next to Smooth Cycle, anticipating an unusual and exciting experience. But when we got there, Seoul Food was closed and sign in the window said “Be back at 4:30.” It was 5:00.

We decided to wait it out.

Turns out the owners were stuck in gridlock on the bridge. Imagine. They arrived just before 5:30, but not before I made an obligatory purchase to excuse our loitering at Smooth Cycle.

It was worth the wait and the obligatory purchase.

I’d never had Korean food before, save a couple of mouth-fulls of kimchee at my aunt’s place in Vancouver (kimchee is a spicy dish made from fermented cabbage, kind of like Korean coleslaw). So going in I really had no idea what to order or what my choices would be. For the most part I was right. Many of the dishes on the menu behind the counter were completely foreign to me, like the dolsot bibimbap (rice, vegetables, ground beef and red pepper paste served in a hot stone pot) and the Seoul pajeon (green onion and seafood pancake). Others, like the curried rice were slightly more familiar if not less intimidating.

I decided on the jaeuck (curried pork and rice) and Jinny chose the dolsot bibimbap. We also decided to order a chicken pocket toast, out of pure curiosity. We placed our order at the counter and took a seat by the window to watch the unimpeded traffic cruise by.

That’s when I noticed the ketchup. There was a bottle of ketchup at every table and Jinny and I were at a complete loss as to why. When the owner delivered the pocket toast, I had to ask. He said many Koreans, especially children, love ketchup with certain dishes. He liked it too. I never would have expected ketchup as a condiment at a Korean restaurant, but what did I know.

Anyway, we started with the pocket toast. It looked like a pizza pocket, but inside was chicken, egg and processed cheese. It was okay, but reminded me of an egg mcmuffin. The jaeuck and the bibimbap were next and both were delicious. The bibimbap was interesting to say the least. It was served in a hot stone bowl with an egg on top of the rice, beef and vegetables. It came with instructions that suggested you mix all the ingredients together before you start. As you’re eating, the rice still touching the bowl dehydrates from the heat and makes for a crispy treat at the end of the dish. It was very good. Both dishes were served with kimchee which is definitely an acquired taste, and a bowl of miso soup. Neither of us used ketchup.

I liked Seoul Food and so did Jinny. The service was fast and friendly and the food was tasty and inexpensive. It was unusual, exciting and far more enjoyable than construction gridlock on the Hillsborough Bridge.

A Tale of Two Diners

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague

It only takes so long before the bar lifestyle burns you out, or you’re forced to change that lifestyle due to personal circumstances. Either way, as the years trickle by it becomes more and more difficult to maintain a noon to 3 am (or later) schedule, to be dependent on tips, and to be constantly subjected to the idiocy of drunkards. You have to go sometime. For two Charlottetown restauranteurs that time is now. And the direction they’ve taken with their new endeavours couldn’t be a bigger change.

Two years ago, Craig Lawlor was the general manager of the Gahan House in Charlottetown. Craig helped make the place what it is today. He went through the growing pains of a new restaurant, and the challenges of major expansion. Craig saw it through until Gahan House became one of the busiest restaurants in Charlottetown.

But life has a way of changing directions, and fast. Craig found out he was going to be a father, and by the time the baby arrived Craig had decided it was time for a change. He resigned from Gahan House and signed up for fatherhood. But Craig was about to sign up for something else as well; restaurant ownership.

Last month Craig opened Phinley’s, right in front of the Stratford Home Hardware. Phinley’s is billed as a family diner and dairy bar. I was in for breakfast last week and it was pretty good. I had french toast and Jinny had the veggie omelet. The french toast was good, as was the bacon. The omelet was just fair. The coffee never cooled. The price was right at about seventeen dollars for both, with tip.

I think Craig has the right idea with Phinley’s; keep the price down, keep the volume up and keep the families coming with a simple diner menu and no surprises. Right now that’s good math in Stratford.

Back in town, another well-known bar man has also taken the plunge on a new diner. Chris Kenny was part of the Pat’s Rose and Gray/Island Rock Cafe/Brennan’s trifecta on Victoria Row. He and his brothers outlasted dozens and dozens of downtown restaurants during their thirty-year run. They sold the place a little over a year ago after much speculation. I think they made the right move.

Now Chris is back. In mid-October he opened his new diner Rufus and Rory’s on University Avenue next to the MacKenzie Theatre. Rufus and Rory’s is a classic style diner complete with funky soda bar stools (which look strangely familiar), ice cream floats and the greatest hits from the 50s and 60s.

I was in during Rufus and Rory’s first week. I had lunch. Chris was there and we chatted. Man, is he happy to be out of the bar scene. Chris has gone through thirty years of drunks, fights, stale beer and two lifetimes worth of parties. Rufus and Rory’s is about as far away from that lifestyle as one could imagine. And Chris is wearing it well.

The menu is much the same as Phinley’s with all the classic diner selections. I had the reuben. It was pretty tasty. The fries and homemade gravy might have been the best part of the meal. With a drink and a generous tip it was fifteen bucks, which is more than reasonable for a big lunch downtown.

It’s nice to see a new diner downtown and to see a restaurant of any kind in Stratford. Phinley’s should do well in an affluent area where there’s been a noticeable lack of dining options for, well, forever. Rufus and Rory’s is going right after the downtown lunch crowd, which could be challenging, but they’re offering a unique atmosphere and pretty good homemade food. All that aside, I’m hopeful for both Craig Lawlor and Chris Kenny. They’re both taking big risks after big changes. Both have gone from late nights to early mornings. And neither has a stitch of liquor in the room. That should make for fewer headaches in the already stressful world of the restauranteur.

Like a Loompa?

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague

There is the odd occasion where I have to start an article with a disclaimer of sorts, or an admission of conflict of interest. In this case it’s because the subject is a close personal friend, an associate in theatrics, and one of the finer people I’ve ever known. He is also, however, the proprietor of a unique dining institution. It’s a place that a person can pass by and remain completely oblivious to the fact that they are walking past a one of a kind culinary experience. That’s because to the untrained eye it appears to be a hot dog stand. But it is so much more. It is Loompa Dogs.

Graham Putnam has an affinity for Norway. He spent some time there as a child and he took to it, or it took to him. Since returning to the Island he’s been proud to call Norway his second home and to announce his dislike for all things Swedish. One of the things that really stuck for Graham was a little potato flat bread called a loompa. It’s about the size of a pita, the thickness of a pancake and the texture of a tortilla. It’s grilled and it’s delicious. I’m not really sure what they used it for in Norway but Graham decided about eight months ago that they’d make great sausage buns. He beta tested his loompa recipe, and combined it with Island Taylored Meats sausages and franks, the finest sausages and franks in the land. The result met his liking to say the least.

So, being a man of action Graham ordered a custom made cart, got a small business loan, booked himself a parking space in front of CIBC on Grafton Street, and set off to pursue his dreams of sausage cart riches, four or three dollars at a time.

It was a difficult beginning for Graham. Loompas are grilled, for one, and they’re made from scratch. So needless to say, the prep time for a few dozen loompas is very, very prohibitive. He enquired about outsourcing the loompas, but no one could do the job. I think at one point he considered getting out of loompas, but through persistence and mild sleeplessness he managed to develop a schedule that allowed him to be in loompas at least five days a week. The second hurdle was cart transport. He needed a place to put it off hours and a way to get it from there to his parking spot. He managed to find a place to house it and eventually managed to get his hands on a trailer hitch that fit his car.

By the second week of July Loompa Dogs was a mainstay on the corner of Grafton and Queen. At first, customers mostly consisted of friends and curious passers by. But as the summer went on word began to spread around the city about the sausage stand with the tasty potato flat breads and ample condiments including sprouts and hot peppers. Graham started a Facebook fan page for the stand and tried to drum up business by offering discounts to customers able to repeat the phrase of the day or able to trade in a ticket stub from Sketch 22.

It’s gone pretty well for a sausage stand start up. Graham intends to keep serving Loompa Dogs through the fall. You should try one if you haven’t already. It’s a fully Island made sausage treat you can’t find anywhere else.

Anything But Common

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague

Halifax is one of my favourite cities. I always enjoy myself there. My sister has lived there for almost ten years. Several life-long friends call the Maritime capital home as do a good many fairly new ones. I tend to spend a lot of time there. When I go to Halifax for reasons other than business my itinerary is fairly standard; dinner somewhere nice, followed by drinks which vary in quantity from just a few to how do you do, followed by sleep, followed by breakfast. Rinse, repeat. There might also be some shopping, some sight seeing or some event of some sort thrown in. It’s predictable, granted, but by no means dull. I always have a few laughs and I almost always wake up aching for food. Lately, that all important morning after breakfast in Halifax has been acquired exclusively at what may be the best breakfast joint around, Jane’s on the Common.

Jane’s isn’t just a place to get breakfast. I’m told they serve supper too, and I’m told it’s quite good, but I wouldn’t know because I’ve only had the breakfast. And, I’ve only ever had it on a Saturday or Sunday morning. It’s advertised as a brunch actually and they don’t have it on weekdays. Jane’s is on Robie, beside the Commons.

I’ve been to Jane’s either three or four times now. Every time has been fantastic. The coffee is great but they also serve a nice smoothie, a mimosa and a breakfast of champions of sorts, a PEI Potato Vodka bloody mary. Breakfast selections include a variety of eggs benedict (more on that later), a ricotta and banana  pancake, a coconut milk and banana french toast, smoked salmon on a potato latke, steak and eggs, a plain old breakfast, a burger and a kick-ass grilled cheese sandwich. It’s all fresh and as local as possible.

On my last trip there (this time it was for a wedding) my sister, my girlfriend, her cousin and I were delighted to wait a half an hour for a table. They don’t take reservations at Jane’s but I had no problem waiting. I knew what I was going to have and I would have waited far longer. Having coffee served to us on the front step while we waited helped a great deal. When we sat I didn’t have to look at a menu. Although I was intrigued when the waitress mentioned the drink special; a bumbleberry mimosa. I ordered one. I also ordered my favourite breakfast in the land; pulled pork eggs benedict. That's right, West Indies pulled pork on a delicious sweet potato tea biscuit. It’s so sweet and tasty, and in an eggs benedict, it’s absolutely fantastic. Way better then ham or even bacon. I can’t believe I just said that. The cousin had the bacon eggs benedict, as did the girlfriend, while the sister had the grilled cheese sandwich. The bacon and provolone grilled cheese with tomato butter, that is. Each were served with a fresh salad and delicious roasted mini potatoes.

It was an all together excellent breakfast on all fronts. Everyone enjoyed it thoroughly. The service was excellent. It was a little on the expensive side, $11 to $15 a plate, but it was so worth it. Jane’s on the Common serves the most excellent breakfast I’ve ever had in a restaurant and on a post-wedding Saturday morning, it’s just about priceless.

 

Viva Italia

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague

Over the last number of years, Prince Edward Island has become well known across North America as a culinary destination. Thanks to a concerted effort by Island restauranteurs, food producers, writers and government our little province has made quite a name for itself as a place where the food is fresh, delicious, and prepared with care. Most of the focus of these efforts, however, has been on the foods traditionally grown, fished and produced on the Island, like our abundant fresh seafood and agricultural products. And while these campaigns promote buying local, and eating fresh, they miss a small cross section of Island restaurants; those that create tastes not traditionally available on PEI.

One such example is a small restaurant tucked away on Water Street in Charlottetown. This restaurant serves some of the best food on the Island. And while this restaurant tries to source as much of its food as possible locally, it simply cannot get everything it needs here. Therefore it doesn’t often get a slice of the media and marketing pie. So this month I’m doing my part to promote one of the Island’s best, and least traditional (in an Island sense) restaurants, Sirenella Ristorante.

Sirenella’s owner, Italo Marzari came to Canada from Northern Italy in 1967. After a couple of stops, including a job as maitre d’ at the prestigious Royal York in Toronto, Italo found employment as an instructor at the Culinary Institute in Charlottetown. In 1992 he opened Sirenella and has been making Islanders love Italian cuisine ever since.

I’ve been to Sirenella twice in the last two weeks and about two dozen times in the last fifteen years. I can only remember one occasion where the food was anything less than excellent, and even then it was still pretty good. The menu is completely Italian, and quite large. This always seems to make my decision more difficult, but it’s all good, so I’m never disappointed.

As I said, my girlfriend and I made two trips to Sirenella’s over the last two weeks. We had the same appetizer each time, the Insalata Caprese, which consists of tomato slices with fresh basil, bocconcini cheese and an olive oil dressing. I always find this appetizer to be a delicious, fresh starter for any meal. For my main course on the first trip I had the Fettucini Funghi di Bosco which is made with homemade fettucini (all Italo’s pastas are home made), mushrooms (Italo is a mushroom expert who picks his own when they’re in season), garlic pesto white wine tomato sauce and a slice of goat cheese. Jinny had what may now be her favorite dish on any Island menu; Ravioli Della Duchessa di Parma which is ravioli stuffed with ricotta cheese and spinach, sautéed with prosciutto, cream and Parmesan. Both of these dishes were excellent as was Italo’s famous tiramisu for dessert.

On trip two Jinny went back to the ravioli for her main (she couldn’t help herself) and I had what may be my favourite meal on any Island menu, the Fettucini a l’Arragosta or Lobster Fettucini. This dish consists of fettucini tossed in a tomato lobster sauce that could make your mouth water from the other side of town. It wasn’t even on the menu that night but Italo had just made some the day before so it was available. He couldn’t have done it on the spot because it takes about three hours to make. I considered it quite a blessing. It was fantastic as usual.

I’m sure I’m telling no secrets here. After all Sirenella’s is in its 18th year and many Islanders have come to love it. But incase you haven’t been, you should go, tomorrow. It’s an authentic Italian experience on par with any Italian restaurant. Plus it takes some of it’s influence from the fresh food available here which makes it a restaurant experience hard to match anywhere in the world.

In Line for Chinese

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague

A couple of weeks ago I had a rare, but excellent opportunity to dust off my drinking shoes and hit the town. A good buddy was without family for the first time in months and it was decided that a night out would be an appropriate course of action. Drinks at the house would be followed by drinks at a bar. As it turned out a few other friends were interested in joining the festivities. Before we knew it we were an octet and much merriment ensued. Drinks at the house went later than expected and we made it to the bar just in time for last call. As the evening drew to a close we were all hit with an undeniable urge to dine in style at one of the two restaurants open in Charlottetown at 2:30 am Sunday morning; China Garden or the Canton Cafe.

I’m a China Garden man myself, not that there’s a huge difference. I find it a little less dingy than the Canton, I think, and I really like the fine folks who run it. But really, the differences are subtle at best. To tell you the truth I’d be hard pressed to eat at either place these days, unless of course the hour is late and the hunger is unrelenting.

But as I mentioned, I’m pretty sure there are no other places open at that hour save the pizza place on Kent Street. Blossoms used to be open but not on this night. That means every single hungry, half-lit hoodlum in Charlottetown has two choices if they want to sit down and be served food. Do the math and that means line-ups, for Chinese food.

The shorter line up was at the Canton, so we headed there, but the line did not move quickly. When we were seated a half hour later the service was quick and very no nonsense. If there’s one thing the wait staff at the Canton excel at, it’s drunkard service. They know they’re in control and they don’t put up with any crap. If you’re good, they’re good. The egg rolls were at the table in five minutes and the rest of the meals in ten. Three of us split two egg rolls, fired rice, sweet and sour chicken balls, beef and broccoli, and moo goo guy pan; also known and the No.3 dinner for two.

Two words best describe this meal: edible and filling. There are vegetables, meats, rice and oddly, pineapple. It comes served in unusual metal dishes, often with covers. I believe this is intended to give customers “ooooh” factor when they remove the cover. The egg rolls are served first, and eaten quickly. There is little talking. One chicken ball often remains once everyone has had their fill. I call this “the cursed one” because he who eats it can suffer painful, and sometimes, tragic consequences. On this evening the cursed one was eaten, and its ingestor was later heard to moan uncontrollably. Painful for him, tragic for those nearby.

All this and we stood in line for a half hour. “Was it worth it?” one might ask, and the answer would be “Sort-of” or “I think.” The line up was kind of fun. I remember laughing a fair bit. The service was super fast and there were no drunken yellers. There were two guys named Dion in the restaurant at the same time. That was unusual. But all together, it will be remembered more for things other than food. I guess at 2:30 am in Charlottetown food isn’t as important as eating and that’s really no surprise.

Sushiphile

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague

I love sushi. But it’s a tough romance to endure in Charlottetown. Until very recently the options for sushi on the Island have been limited. Really, there were only two choices: Monsoon Tea House on University Avenue, which limits its hours of operation and is often closed for long stretches; or sushi from the grocery store, which for me is generally unappealing. So, when I heard an authentic sushi bar was going to open in Charlottetown I was excited to say the least. And after two visits to Zen Sushi Bar and Café on Queen Street, I’m pleased to say that my love of sushi will no longer go unrequited on PEI.

Zen Sushi is located in the small space on lower Queen most recently occupied by Sunbeams Café. The same location has also been home to Just Juicin’ and several other businesses over the years. It’s a small space that hasn’t really produced long term success for those who’ve leased it. But it’s a nice fit for a sushi bar. There is room for about fifteen people if you count the window seats. It feels a bit cramped, but I have a feeling the owners of Zen are hoping to do most of their business with take out customers so space isn’t so important. In fact, they have a small display fridge just inside the front door filled with assorted sushi boxes for those in a hurry.

The menu at Zen contains sushi of all varieties—from the standard tuna roll to the exotic dragon roll which contains tempura prawn, barbeque eel, avocado and tobiko (red roe from flying fish). There is also an ample selection of nigri (thin sliced fish on a rice ball) and sashimi (straight up raw fish). The cooked, hot selections include a variety of beef, pork, shrimp and chicken dishes, udon noodles and, of course, miso soup. All of it is very reasonably priced with lunch dishes around $7 and supper around $13.

Miso soup was my first dish on my first trip to Zen. I’d met my girlfriend for lunch just before noon because we figured the later we left it the busier it would be. And man was it busy. The restaurant was full to capacity by 12:30 and there was a substantial line up for take out orders. Luckily we got a table and we both started with a bowl of miso soup. It was good and there was lots of tofu. For the main part of the meal we both had sushi. I had the sushi plate B which consisted of a 4-piece California Roll (pollock, avocado, cucumber and mayo), a 4-piece Dynamite Roll (tempura prawn, avocado, lettuce and mayo) and the Mr. Potato Roll (croquette, cucumber and mayo). It was good, but because it was so busy it took just over 45 minutes for the sushi to arrive. On my second trip I went right back to the sushi plate B but I also ordered the lunch size beef plate. I ate the sushi at the restaurant and took the beef plate with me. Again, the sushi was pretty good. The beef plate was not and it made me wonder why I didn’t just order more sushi.

I’m convinced that hundreds, if not thousands of Islanders have been waiting patiently for years for a good sushi bar to open in Charlottetown. At least one that’s open when you’d expect it to be open. So far my experiences there have been good, save a bad beef plate, and I expect it will only improve over time. We’ve waited too long for a place like Zen to open, and for the forseeable future, Islanders who love sushi will be there in droves.

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