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Fourteen stops

Adventures along the New Year’s Levee trail

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague

Levee Day 2018 was supposed to be a less boisterous affair. It happened on a Monday, after all. Surely some people would stay home for fear of the cold and a long Tuesday at work. But not only were this year’s levees well attended, the crowd is changing, and a new guard is forming that will help ensure one of Charlottetown’s most cherished traditions remains relevant well into the future.

I travel on a bus with a group of long time friends. We call ourselves the Secret Levee Society. We think it’s a funny name. It’s neither secret nor exclusive but we do have a founding committee. The only real requirement for membership is a free seat on the bus. We’ve been doing the levees for years and we have it down to a science. As such, we plan ahead, and we maximize the number of stops we make in order to get the most out of the day.

We started at the Lieutenant Governor’s at 10 am sharp. Her Honour Antoinette Perry was hosting her first levee and she did very well greeting and receiving introductions. If anything she took a little too long with each person. We were at the head of the line to start, and when we left at 10:30 the line was easily 300 deep.

City Hall was next, followed by The Rotary Club of Charlottetown and the Guild. We made our way through each receiving line quickly. There are a lot of early stops. Lingering too long can put you at the end of a long line.

Our next stop was Upstreet Brewery. It was packed. They had delicious chili on offer, and entertainment all day long. I’m betting the place was full from noon to midnight. This was the first place I noticed the age of the people around me. It was far younger than usual. A development I would notice the rest of the day.

UPEI was next. They put on a great spread of sandwiches and hot food. For the third year in a row they gave out scarves.

Our seventh stop was the PEI Regiment. The Regimental band sounded tight. The seafood chowder was great, and the mood was starting to loosen. We whizzed through another bowl of chowder, and a glass of moose milk at HMCS Charlottetown then we were off to a perennial favourite for our group, the Town of Stratford.

We got an earful from Mayor Dunphy and Councillor Copper for a certain Compass interview where a certain someone extolled the many virtues of the Stratford levee which they claimed increased numbers. I’m not sure that’s true but we captured a great picture of the group and a couple of glasses of wine each.

Andrew’s of Stratford hit it out of the park. They had bacon-wrapped scallops. They had lobster bruscetta. They had meatballs. They had a resident ukulele band that brought the joy. It was one of the finest levees our group has ever attended and it guaranteed itself a stop by our merry band in 2019.

The Bishop’s residence was next, followed by the Mason’s Lodge, then the Benevolent Irish Society. The BIS always puts on a good show with fiddles, guitars, and pianos. It’s always packed, and it’s always the point where our membership starts to dwindle due to fatigue, and prior commitments.

The Alley was the second receiving line for Ray Murphy after Andrew’s of Stratford. It was so full of people it made getting a drink a monumental task. We then had what we call a “secret levee” at the Gahan House.

Our last official stop was the Sports Page. We were very late and the levee was over when we got there. I tried the Fire Hall but the line up was massive and I decided to call it a night.

It was a great levee day. I’ve been to over a dozen and it was easily one of the best. More and more venues are popping up and the crowd is getting younger. If this year is any indication our levee tradition is in good hands with a new generation and a host of new venues.

A good ribbing

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague

One thing though. Sometimes they run out of ribs later in the evening so if anyone wants ribs it could be a gamble at that time.”

That was the text I received from my buddy Justin on a Wednesday afternoon early in November. Six of us were in Halifax for what was likely the biggest pool tournament in the history of Eastern Canada. There were 240 players and about $74,000 in prizes. It was a great opportunity for recreational players like me to rub shoulders with some of the best players in the world. A two-time world champion from Finland watched one of my matches. The best player in the world is going to give me a call when he comes to visit PEI, maybe. It was awesome.

Back to Justin. He lives in Halifax and was keen to take us out to one of his favourite supper spots, The Mic Mac Bar and Grill in Dartmouth. Earlier in the week I’d thumbed through the Coast’s annual Best of Halifax edition and it was on about a half dozen lists. I’d also spoken to an old friend who told me that the Mic Mac is the single biggest restaurant client of the largest food supplier in the Maritimes. I suppose that makes it the busiest restaurant in the region. Between the Coast and the friend I was curious to say the least. Justin’s text sealed the deal.

“We gotta wait for Lorne to finish. Make the reservation for 7:30. We’ll roll the dice on the ribs.”

The Mic Mac opened in 1963 and quickly became a popular choice for locals. It relocated to a new building across the street from its original location inside the last couple of years. It’s a big, open space, somewhat reminiscent of Papa Joe’s before the renovation. The menu is huge with steaks, burgers, ribs, tons of seafood and all the diner style classics you could imagine. We were a hair early for our reservation and greatly relieved to find out that ribs were indeed still on the menu.

I ordered a local draught and chatted with the bartender while we waited. She said she’d worked there for something like 15 years, but mostly part time these days. She loves it and hangs on to a few shifts just to be around the place. That’s a big compliment to the ownership and management. The money probably doesn’t hurt either.

We sat down a few minutes later. It took a little while for a few of us to decide what to order. I blame the gargantuan menu. Once we ordered it took less than 15 minutes for the food to come out. The place runs like a well oiled machine. Around the table there were steaks and burgers, and combo plates with steak, ribs and seafood. I chose a full rack of ribs with mashed potatoes and gravy. How could I not?

I did not regret my decision. They were fantastic ribs. The sweet barbeque sauce and the perfect tenderness of the meat made it difficult to avoid making a pig of myself. But I didn’t care. If my math is right, and it might not be, they are the most popular and in-demand ribs in the Maritimes. So not only did I get to enjoy a sweet rack of ribs, I got to test the most popular plate of its kind in the east. The consensus around the table was much the same. Everyone enjoyed their meal. We were in and out in just over an hour. A beer, a wine and the meal plus a generous tip came to just over $54.

The Mic Mac Bar and Grill is a little out of the way if you’re staying on the Halifax side, but it’s worth the trip. You’ll get a big meal, top notch service from some of the best staff around, and an experience you won’t soon forget.

Mad Wok stirs it up

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague 

(photo: Andrew Sprague)Foodies are often the first to benefit from an influx of immigrants in a given jurisdiction. As the number of immigrants in a given area increases so does the number of restaurants, and the variety of food choices available. It’s happening right now in downtown Charlottetown. Off the top of my head I can think of seven new restaurants that have opened in the downtown in the last three years. There’s more Indian food, more sushi, more Asian noodle houses, and at least two restaurants that specialize in pho. Almost all of these are one-off, family owned establishments, which is not surprising given the business ownership requirements for many immigrants coming to our shores. But for the first time in the Island’s history, we are now home to a longstanding Chinese restaurant franchise; Mad Wok.

“There are hundreds of Mad Wok locations in China but only one in Canada and it’s on lower Queen Street in downtown Charlottetown. It serves a variety of stir-fried Asian fare like General Tao chicken, Kung pow chicken, curry shrimp and pad thai. They also allow customers to build their own stir-fries with an ample selection of proteins, vegetables and sauces to choose from. Customers order at the counter and get to watch their food made by chefs at one of three open stir-fry stations next to the cash. The chefs are rather animated and you can tell they’re putting on a bit of a show with all the sizzling, wok tossing, flames and smoke. It’s quite a sight to see the three of them going at the same time.

That’s exactly what they were doing when my friend Yanik and I dropped in for lunch in mid-October. It was about 12:30 and the restaurant was about half full. At the counter the server informed us that with the purchase of any two stir-frys we’d receive six chicken dumplings for free. We both ended up ordering the General Tao chicken with rice.

The food was generally good and was made to order very quickly. We waited about five minutes before it was ready. The General Tao was a huge bowl of rice with plenty of vegetables and six good sized pieces of breaded Szechuan chicken. The dumplings were just fair. I was not a fan of the peanut sauce along side, and that sullied my impression of the dish. Yanik enjoyed his meal as well and was a far bigger fan of the dumplings than I.

For the two of us it was just over $30 with taxes and tip. We didn’t have a drink but that’s still a pretty good deal for two heaping plates of stir-fry and six dumplings. Throw in the entertainment value with the chefs and the woks, and you end up with a pretty darn good spot for lunch or dinner that won’t take too much time out of your day.

The surge in new restaurants owned by immigrants has opened a whole new world of dining experiences for Islanders. It’s a small benefit compared to the many other ways immigration is changing the Island for the better, but it’s one that makes this longtime foodie very grateful.

Tumbling dice

Fireworks at The Inn at Bay Fortune

I’m Dining Out Here
by Andrew Sprague

In 2015 Chef Michael Smith and his wife Chastity Fizzard purchased the Inn at Bay Fortune. It brought Smith full circle to the restaurant where, in the early to mid-nineties, he launched his career as one of Canada’s most popular celebrity chefs. Smith re-branded the restaurant as Fireworks. The food would be cooked in a large stone hearth over fire. Diners would sit at large communal tables. Fireworks would offer a completely unique dining experience that went far beyond just sitting and eating. The Inn, the food, the staff, the grounds…each promised to play a part in a one-of-a-kind evening in a one-of-a-kind setting.

That is a lot to live up to.

We were invited by friends to join a group of 12 at Fireworks in mid-August. I’d heard mostly excellent reviews, and I couldn’t wait to take it all in. 

We arrived a little after 6 pm for what’s called oyster hour. As we explored the grounds and the inn we found food stations. In the herb garden there was sausage; at the hearth, smoked salmon; on the lawn, cocktails and smoked brisket and slaw tacos; in the prep area, all you can eat Colville Bay oysters. I could have easily eaten enough to spoil the rest of the meal but I took my time and paced accordingly. 

Before taking our seats in the restaurant Chef de Cuisine Cody Wallace led the staff and patrons in a toast to the farmers, the food, the place and the historic year. A little bubbly and we were off to our table in the restaurant. It was a nice touch.

The meal began with fermented heritage bread served with a trio of spreads. It was followed very quickly by seafood chowder garnished with Irish moss. They were both delicious, but there is much left to describe, so I’ll move on.

Next was fresh caught bluefin tuna served seared and tartar. It was remarkable. The texture, and the smoky flavour of the seared loin married just perfectly. The tangy citrus of the tartar cleansed the pallet after every bite. It was the best of all courses in my opinion, but we were nowhere near done.

Next was a beautifully presented salad from the Inn’s gardens. The server explained the dressings came from below ground, and the greens, seeds and fruits from above. It was a sharp salad that helped keep the digestive system from bogging down on account of the rich flavours and large servings. 

I took a break here, and went for some fresh air. It ended up being a good idea. The next plate was a monster.

The wood grilled chicken breast and smoked chicken legs were served with fire roasted, steamed and sautéed vegetables, and dressed with chanterelle chicken jus. It was a rich, smoky, hearty assault on the pallet, and I say this as a compliment. It left me feeling breathless, like I’d just been kicked in the gut, but again, in a good way. It was one of those plates of food that are so delicious that you gorge until you feel pain, and then throw down your utensils, wave your napkin in a sign of surrender before throwing it down in front of you to hide from sight whatever might remain. 

For dessert was pound cake and blueberry compote. But at that point it didn’t matter. Fireworks had lived up to its billing. It was completely unique and the food was delicious. When I got the check, though, I got to thinking.

A bottle of wine, a glass of wine, two cocktails and two seats at the table was $430, tip and tax included. The booze was very expensive at $14 to $16 per cocktail. That’s a price most Islanders either wouldn’t or couldn’t pay. And for those that would, there’s a gamble involved. What you eat is what they’re serving that night. You might like it, you might not. And unless you’re a vegetarian, or have some sort of other restrictive philosophy or condition, you get what they put in front of you.

 Since that night I’ve asked a lot of people a lot of very pointed questions about their experience at Fireworks and I’ve heard a mixed bag of answers. Some didn’t like the food. Others disliked the communal dining. Some thought it was their best meal ever. 

The conclusion, Fireworks is a very expensive, but truly unique dining experience that for the average person is both a once-in-a-lifetime trip, and a bit of a roll of the dice. 

Bangers and mash

A filling Island favourite at The Churchill Arms

by Andrew Sprague

To say it’s been a corker of a summer would be a massive understatement. From the beginning of July until the middle of August we had rain three times during daylight hours. Twice it came down in sheets for an hour or two, and only once did it rain steadily all day. The rest was beautiful sunshine. On that solitary rainy Tuesday, I wandered down to The Churchill Arms on Queen Street to have one of the best stick-to-your-ribs, warm-your-guts rainy day foods out there; bangers and mash.

The combination of mashed potatoes, gravy and sausage has been a stand-by in English cuisine for hundreds of years. It’s easy to cook, the ingredients are abundant, and it’s relatively cheap to make. It’s hearty, nutritious (if a little on the salty/fatty side), and it simply tastes great. A restaurant sized helping will fill most anyone, and very few will turn their nose up at a plateful. Perhaps that’s why bangers and mash received an impressive number of votes for the Island’s favourite restaurant meal. Even more impressive; it was the only meal that received nominations from three different restaurants. The Churchill Arms, The Olde Dublin Pub and The Old Triangle all had their bangers and mash mentioned as favourites. I chose the Churchill for no other reason than it was the place closest by at the time and it was raining.

There are three things you can count on at the Churchill and the first is good food. It is best known for its British style curries. They too received a substantial number of votes for the Island’s favourite. But all the food is good, especially the bangers and mash. You can also count on friendly service. The servers treat you like family and they leave you feeling welcome and engaged. The third thing you can count on is Rex. Now, Rex may not like that he’s getting a mention here, but that’s too bad for Rex. He’s a standby at the Churchill. You may have seen him; trench-coat, vest, goatee, tweed cap. He’s usually at the corner of the bar deep into a book or an often-spirited debate. I’ve known Rex for years and consider him a good friend. When he’s at the Churchill I enjoy it more, for the conversation, for the catching-up, and for the way his manner suits the very theme of the pub. That rainy August Tuesday was no different.

The bangers and mash were delicious, as usual. It’s a heaping plate of food with at least three potatoes worth of mash, four large sausages and enough rich, thick gravy to make it nearly impossible not to lose some off the side of your dish. It warms you up like no other meal, and by the time I was done the chill of the rain had all but disappeared.

The Churchill is also known for its selection of beer on tap. They have a few locals, some domestic and a decent variety of import draught. That Tuesday they also had Pump House Crafty Radler on tap. It might be the fastest selling non-domestic beer of the summer of 2017. A friend was looking for cans the first week of August and only the O’Leary liquor store had them in stock. It’s a fantastic dry radler that, as it happens, makes an excellent, fruity and refreshing compliment to a hefty meal like bangers and mash. Between the meal itself, the tasty beverage and Rex, it was a nearly perfect was to spend a rainy afternoon in downtown Charlottetown.

The Handpie Co.

Sarah Bennetto O’Brien at Gateway Village

by Andrew Sprague

My neighbour Dale made a completely unique choice when I asked him about his favourite restaurant meal on the Island. He chose the grilled cheese with potato salad from Scapes in Borden. Not that the meal itself was particularly unique, but he was the only person of all the people who wrote in or spoke to me who chose that meal. He was also the only person to choose a meal in Borden-Carleton, or just about anywhere west of Victoria for that matter. Dale’s a fan of potato salad and he said it was the best he’d ever had.

As you may already know, Scapes is gone. Chef and owner Sarah Bennetto O’Brien decided late last year to take her Gateway Village location in a slightly different direction in 2017, and instead focus on her most popular item, handpies. Since the shift in focus the Handpie Company has absolutely exploded. It is one of, if not the busiest non-franchise food service venue in the Borden-Bedeque-Kinkora region. We dropped in on a family drive in mid-July at about 11 in the morning and the place was already hopping. We were headed to the beach with friends and we wanted to pick up a few handpies and potato salad to share.

“How’s business, Sarah?” I asked.

She flushed. “I’m busy,” she stammered, with a wide grin. “We had a laugh in the kitchen the other day. We were talking about how long it takes, on average, to turn hand pies into money. It hasn’t been taking all that long.”

I’m not the least bit surprised. Her handpies are awesome. Picture a six-inch pie, cut in half but fully sealed in pastry. They are just right for eating with one hand. There’s quite a selection, too. There are traditional meat pies, like tourtiere and pasty. There are sure-to-be-favourites like bacon cheeseburger and barbeque pulled pork. But the best sellers are the curried chick pea, and my personal pick, the beet, corn and goat cheese handpie. I’m eating the pasty handpie right at this minute. It’s filled with beef and potatoes and it’s making a case for itself. The truth is, they’re all delicious.

The Handpie Company is a hit with locals and hundreds of nearby industrial workers. More and more people from outside the region are making the drive to Borden to stock up on frozen pies, including someone who owns one of the most discerning palettes on the Island. I won’t say who this person is, but she freely admits making the drive from Victoria by the Sea to load up on handpies from time to time. Most telling is the company’s own Facebook page. Every second week they’re hiring someone new to help keep up with demand.

Let’s go back to Dale. Dale loved the potato salad. The Handpie Company still serves the potato salad. It is the impetus for the article so it’s only right we give it its due. My sister Alana makes a mean potato salad. It’s her speciality and it’s delicious. The potato salad at the Handpie Company is better. It is. I’m going to pay for saying that, but I have to be honest with readers. I’m sorry, Alana.

Go to Borden, even if you’re not heading there, and get yourself a handpie and some potato salad. If you’re headed to the bridge pop in and get some snacks for the drive. The Handpie Company supports local and so should you. It’s a decision you won’t regret and one you will likely repeat.

—What is your favourite Island restaurant meal? Each month, Andrew Sprague heads out to eat based on 
your recommendation. Post it online using #TryThisAndrew on Facebook, Instagram and/or Twitter.

Honky tonkin’

Legends of Country Music

Review by Andrew Sprague

Performed by
Nudie (vocals, guitar and storytelling), Bobby MacIsaac (guitar), and Chris Martell (upright bass).

The music
Legends of Country Music explores the music and careers of country’s most popular singers and songwriters from the golden era of the genre in the 50s, 60s and 70s. Hank Snow, Conway Twitty, George Jones, Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and many other artists are featured through their songs, and through anecdotes and stories told by Nudie (Matt Putnam) who’s own career has brought him up close and personal with many of the musicians he profiles.

The performance
The band is tight and the song selection is accessible to anyone whose grandparents had a radio on in the house, or to people who were indeed those grandparents. Nudie’s storytelling is charming and funny and he engages the crowd with ease. Often when he introduces a song there is a hubbub from the audience, no doubt talking about how much they love a song, or how long it’s been since they last heard it. Guitar solos are applauded, and there are plenty of singers-along.

Best thing
A toss up between Bobby MacIsaac’s sweet guitar licks and Nudie’s engaging storytelling.

Too many classic country songs are about no-good, cheating, low-life men who’ve had too many second chances already.

Final thoughts
If you like classic country you’ll have a hard time not singing along and reminiscing about early morning drives to the hockey rink with your buddy’s Dad who played nothing but an 8-track of Conway Twitty’s greatest hits. It’s a trip down memory lane full of polyester suits and Brylcreem.

—Saturdays to August 26 at Harmony House Theatre, Hunter River. Tickets/info at

Buttered up

Indian buttered chicken rates high with foodies

by Andrew Sprague

Twenty years ago you’d be hard pressed to find curry of any kind on a PEI restaurant menu, let alone a restaurant with a variety of curries to choose from. For a very long time PEI’s cultural cuisine consisted of a few Chinese and Lebanese restaurants and little else. Cultural selections on local menus were present but few and far between. That’s changed dramatically over the last decade. Now there are dozens of restaurants from a variety of ethnicities, and menus of all kinds have adopted flavours from all over the world. In the last five years at least three Indian restaurants have opened in Charlottetown, two in the last three months. The first was Himalayan Indian Cuisine.

The restaurant had just opened when I first wrote about Himalayan and owner Anuj Thapa. Like a lot of restaurants the first week was a bit of a write off. There are often a good many wrinkles to iron out before a restaurant hits its groove, and the article reflected that to a degree, but his food was always good. Since those difficult, early days Himalayan has established itself as a local favourite for hundreds of people. Himalayan received at least a dozen votes in our recent poll to determine the Island’s favourite restaurant meals. The most popular among those was the butter chicken.

We hadn’t eaten at Himalayan for several months. We go through cycles when it comes to where we choose to eat. Himalayan dropped out of our cycle for a time, but we ordered from there a few weeks ago and it was so good we ordered it again within a week. All but one of the main dishes we ordered was butter chicken.

There are a number of reasons so many people enjoy Himalayan’s butter chicken. For one the chicken itself is cooked Tandoori style before it ever meets the curry. Tandoori is traditionally seasoned with garlic, ginger, garam masala, cumin, coriander, tumeric and other spices. It’s cooked in a Tandoori oven, which looks like a covered basin with a 20 to 30 centimetre clay tube straight up and down the middle. Naan bread is cooked in the same style oven, directly on the clay surface. It lends a smoky, grilled flavour to the chicken that’s difficult if not impossible to recreate with other cooking devices. The butter chicken also has a certain sweetness to it. It’s hard to say where it comes from. For all I know it could be white sugar. Whatever it is, it works. The naan bread is fantastic as well. I’d go on about it but I don’t have the space.

My four year old is a picky eater. It’s been challenging to get him to expand beyond cereal, oatmeal, French toast and chicken, but he’s been getting better. He’s also been mostly terrified of spicy food. When we ordered from Himalayan the second time, he asked for some butter chicken and rice. It must have been the smell. We were both hesitant. We didn’t want to waste any and it seemed likely we would. He ate every bite of the first batch and asked for more. He did say it was spicy but a glass of milk did the trick. I’m pretty sure he had three helpings. That’s a vote of confidence I can’t ignore.

—What is your favourite Island restaurant meal? Each month, Andrew Sprague heads out to eat based on your recommendation. Post it using #TryThisAndrew on Facebook, Instagram and/or Twitter.

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