Thursday, January 1

Juiced: My (totally unqualified, highly subjective) take on juice cleanses

Welcome to 2015! This post is very seasonal, as of course this is the one special time of the year when chances are, you have not broken your new year's resolutions yet (I was 1 for 3 for 2014… Which is pretty good right?).

As of course, losing weight is one of the most popular resolutions, let's discuss juice cleanses. Now juice cleanses aren't that new, but it seems the concept really exploded in Calgary over the past year. There are a lot of options available to us, though I will discuss only the ones that I have personally tried.

Local Options
My first foray into juice was through Well Juicery. I tried Well's 3 day cleanse. They delivered the juice to me first thing in the morning, and I started right away. It's a fairly typical cleanse, where you drink six juices per day: 2 green, 3 other fruit/vegetable based, and a nut milk at the end of the day. I found I had a hard time finishing all six juices, especially the more sweet/fruity ones, Be Well (carrot / apple / beet) and "C" Well (orange/carrot/turmeric). I must say though, Well's almond milk is ridiculously good.  It tasted like melted vanilla ice cream, and the texture was fantastic. Overall, Well was a good experience that taught me that (1) turns out I like green juice (though Well's has a touch too much ginger for my palate), and (2) I need to be very picky in terms of juice ingredients - e.g. lots of juiceries will add cilantro or fennel to their juices, and if you don't find the juice at least somewhat tasty, you are going to have a really hard time staying on the cleanse. Honestly, you need to have a sense of competitiveness to finish it at times. I am far too stubborn to stop once I've committed, so I ultimately had very little issues staying on the juice only protocol - a light headache on the first day due to lack of caffeine and an odd craving for potatoes (yeah, I know) around lunch time, and past that I was fine. Plus, I had the almond milk to look forward to! Well has been expanding steadily, and you can even find it at the downtown co-op grocery now, which is fantastic. Great local success story so far.

Most recently, I have moved onto the Cru Juice bandwagon though, largely due to variety (so many juices! And I have tried most of them) and convenience - you can find Cru in many places, and I buy it at the Sweat Lab or Holt Renfrew locations. I've been largely buying one off juices from Cru, such as Pumped Up Kicks (tasty pineapple /apple / aloe vera concoction),  Blue My Mind (blueberry / basil / apple, you mostly taste the basil), Dirty Lemonade (lemon water with bentonite clay, zeoline and activated charcoal  which tastes fine, but I haven't been able to find any definitely proof of healing properties.. more on that later),  Ménage à Trois  (Cru's almond/cashew milk, not as good as Well's) and many others. I also did a 3 day cleanse on Cru, though not one of their actual ones, as I've learned that in reality I just want the green juice and the nut milk at the end to cap off the day, so I drank 3 of Cru's #greenjuice (good, neutral green juice, while the other green option is 50 Shades of Green, and that one has cilantro and fennel, blergh), 1 Pumped Up Kicks and 1 of their most glorious creation, Bad Boy Brown, per day.  Frankly, Bad Boy Brown deserves its own post, but basically it’s a chocolate nut milk. It's delicious, amazing and everything you ever dreamed a chocolate nut milk would taste like and more.

"Big Juice"
A few US / elsewhere in Canada based juice companies will indeed ship to Calgary. I checked out BluePrint as I was hunting around for more neutral tasting green juices after concluding that Well green juice was too gingery. I chose BluePrint's Excavation Cleanse, which is 4 green juices, 1 spicy lemonade and a nut milk per day. The juices shipped via FedEx on Monday, and I had them fairly early on Tuesday morning. BluePrint does by far have the most neutral tasting green juice I've tried, extremely easy to drink.  Spicy Lemonade was fine, though I'm not a fan of the taste of agave nectar I think, but the bigger issue for me is it reminds me of the Master Cleanse, which I've never tried, but have heard horror stories about, so I didn't feel very comfortable drinking. Lastly, the nut milk BluePrint does is cashew sweetened again with agave nectar, and it wasn't as good was the ones from Well or Cru. BluePrint is a good option but we have some great ones locally so might as well stick with them!

I also tried the DIY route once this summer, and I must say, it was tough. I don't have a juicer, so what I did was blend the ingredients (various greens, cucumber, celery, green apple and lemon) and push them through a sieve. The result was a touch thicker than a regular juice, which was fine, the bigger issue was the fact that you were making juices every night, and surrounded by that smell, and then you had to drink them.  I had a tough time with that (though I finished). I capped off the evening with a homemade almond milk, and I wasn't able to get the same silky texture that the juiceries get (I was using a nut milk bag to strain it which gives you a result that's closer to thinness of commercially produced almond milk) so it was not nearly as satisfying. Ultimately, DIY (for me) was a bust - but I do know people who've tried it successfully (owning a juicer helps).

So what is my final verdict on juices? If you're going to do it, go with the local juiceries - they are tastier, fresher, and you don't have to clean up green slop of your counter/clothing (spoiler: green slop does not come off clothes very easily). As for benefits of juice cleanses, I am in no way qualified to comment on the cleansing aspect (and I am frankly quite skeptical) but what I can say is that they are a good way to reset your standard of eating. After drinking nothing but juices for 3 days, lean meat and vegetables taste amazing - for me, it's a good way to snap myself back into hear and kickstart healthy eating. Another thing to remember is that the fruitier juices can have the same (or more) sugar in them as a can of Coke. So while they're natural, so are poisonous mushrooms, so buyer beware.

Tuesday, December 23

Stocking Stuffer Reviews

It's almost Christmas, and here are a few stocking stuffers, A Picky Eater style.

Swine and Sow Ale House: ***

Swine and Sow is another relatively new restaurant on the Calgary scene. I checked it out for a quick after work meal, and overall was happy with it. I wouldn't seek it out, but it is definitely a viable option for a business lunch or dinner. We sat in the lounge, and received good service. I started with one of the signature cocktails, Strawberry Fields, which is citrus vodka, elderflower liqueur, strawberry, mint and prosecco, which was quite delicious. Then we ordered the Chef Inspired Sliders, which that day were a basic beef, but good nonetheless. Lastly, I tried the Mac & Cheese (apparently I'm on a mac & cheese kick lately), made with ham hock, pease and black truffle crumb. I enjoyed the dish as well. Overall, not the most memorable, but a solid dining and drinking experience.

Swine & Sow Wine & Ale House on Urbanspoon

The Coup: ****

The Coup is a vegetarian restaurant on 17th which reopened a few months ago to my general delight. Now I am not a vegetarian (clearly) but I enjoy vegetarian dishes (vegan I have a harder time with). Recently, I went to the Coup for a brunch, and it was as tasty as ever. I ordered the Coup Granola, which is a nut / honest granola that comes with banana, coconut and chia jam. It was delicious and quite filling. I actually ordered some eggs and toast on the side (which was good as well) because I was worried the granola wouldn't be enough food, but it is a GIANT portion - no one is going hungry here (Sorry for lack of pictures - was too delicious!)! The service is friendly and the space is welcoming - even if you are not a vegetarian, you should come in. And what easier way to dip into the vegetarian world than with brunch!

The Coup on Urbanspoon

Palomino Smokehouse: ***1/2

I've been hearing about Palomino for years, and somehow never made it in until this year. I think the issue is that the place was really talked up to me, so in the end I felt it was only ok. The interior is apt for a barbecue joint, and the waitress we got was quick which was good. I tried the smoked n' rubbed ribs which was tasty, and Jack Daniel's BBQ wings (not bad but nothing spectacular) to start. As a main, I ordered the Applewood smoked pulled pork with smoked cheddar grits, cornbread and Jack Daniel's apples because I couldn't choose just 2 sides. The pulled pork was tasty and well sauced, but I wouldn't call it spectacular. I would say the pulled pork sandwich at Original Joe's elicits the same level of enthusiastic response from me (which is fairly enthusiastic, but more in a "this is my go to dish here" rather than "I would come here for this dish alone). The cornbread's texture was good, but it was a touch too sweet, and grits were a bit of a disappointment (I know I say this a lot, but seriously, grits at Model Milk. They will change your life. Maybe). The apples were a revelation however, and worked well as both a side and a dessert. In the end, I would come to Palomino again, but only if someone else wanted to. Plus I hear the live music is pretty awesome.

Palomino Smokehouse on Urbanspoon

Monplaisir: **

Monplaisir is a bakery on the top level of the Core shopping centre downtown. Their main focus is on macarons, and this review comes from a long time Yann's addict, so take this with a grain of salt. I've tried Monplaisir on a few occasions, and have always found that the flavours just aren't as bright as I'd like them to be. Half the time all I taste is the sweetness. Also, I find the macarons themselves are a touch too chewy for my taste. Nonetheless, they are still gorgeous and if you are in a pinch and can't make it to Yann's, they are good enough to make a beautiful gift.

Monplaisir Delicacies on Urbanspoon

Summit Cafe: ***1/2

Summit Cafe is a very cute restaurant that presents a great all day breakfast option in Canmore. We tried the Cowboy Wrap and a Breakfast Sandwich with egg, bacon, cheddar and chipotle mayo, both of which was tasty and an excellent cap off to a weekend in Canmore. I couldn't resist all the baked goods (the cinnamon buns smelled divine) and tried a raspberry square, which was just what the doctor ordered. The food service is slow, and you will likely have to wait for a table, but if you are tired of Starbucks and Tim Horton's and want a local option, this is the place for you!

The Summit Cafe on Urbanspoon

Milk Tiger Lounge: ****

Let's end on a high note. I've been meaning to go to Milk Tiger for a while, but finally made it this summer. Why? Milk Tiger just seems so intimidating on the outside. Well, I was wrong. The staff was friendly, the space cozy, and the cocktails fantastic. I can't wait to go back and try the food! In the meantime, my favourite libations included Boston (gin, apricot brandy, lemon juice and grenadine) and Aviation (gin, Crème de Violette, maraschino liquer and lemon juice). And yes, they have (very) many drinks as well. I am glad I finally tried it, about time!

Milk Tiger Lounge on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, December 16

Posto: ***1/2

This was the second time I've tried Posto - Bonterra's sister restaurant located right next door. I did like Posto the first time, so I was looking forward to coming there again. The place was decorated very tastefully for Christmas, and we got a seat at the back bar with a great view of the kitchen, including the pizza oven, which was fascinating to watch.

We started with the antipasti platter. The highlight for me was the duck prosciutto with orange oil and pistachios - I normally am not a fan of too fruity of flavours with my cured meats, but this was balanced perfectly. I also enjoyed the taleggio with apricot puree and almonds. The rest of platter was good, but not as memorable, and the swordfish bresaola was almost underseasoned, which was a bit disappointing.

For the main event, we tried the potato and smoked panchetta as well as the mushroom pizzas. Both were delicious, with excellent thin but sturdy crust. We sat at the bar so we learned that Posto's trick for preventing soggy crust is to slide a fork underneath the pizza when it comes out of the oven to let out the steam. I can attest that it works!

Dessert was quite good as well, and we enjoyed both the cannoli (which are quite sizable - we ordered one each and it was perhaps overkill) and hazelnut latte gelato.

It was a good experience, and the only reason that Posto gets a half-star knock is the drink service pace - I didn't get my glass of sparkling until after our antipasti platter was ready. In any event, I would come again.

Posto Pizzeria and Bar on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 8

Mushroom Chicken Julienne

I had a pound of chicken breast that's been sitting in my freezer for a while, and I finally decided that enough is enough and I really need to cook with it before it's 2015. This recipe is a modification of a few that I've tried before, and it works well as a hot appetizer or a lunch. It's pretty typical of Eastern European cuisine, made easier (traditionally, julienne is made with bechamel) and (somewhat) healthier with the addition of spinach. Without further adieu, Chicken Julienne!

Mushroom Chicken Julienne
Serves 8 as an appetizer or 4 as a light lunch

1 lb chicken breast
Salt and pepper
2-3 tbsp olive oil
1 lb mushrooms, sliced
1 clove garlic
18 oz or so spinach
1.5 cups greek yogurt
2 oz Parmesan, grated

Preheat the oven to 375F.

Cut chicken into 1 inch cubes, season generously with salt and pepper, and fry in 1 tbsp olive oil until golden and cooked through in skillet over medium high heat. Take out the chicken and distribute into 8 lightly oiled ramekins (I cut the pieces in half at this point, but if you are using 4 bigger ramekins I would stick with the 1 inch pieces).

In the same skillet, heat up another tablespoon of oil and sauté mushrooms and garlic seasoned with salt and pepper until golden and most of the liquid is gone.

Next, add spinach in 3 stages. I find closing the lid for a minute and then heaping cooked spinach over top of the raw spinach helps cook it quicker without browning on the bottom. Cook until most of the liquid is evaporated, then add the yogurt. Note if you use reduced fat yogurt, it will look curdled/separated, but it will still taste good. Cook for a couple of minutes until heated through and incorporated and then distribute evenly among ramekins. Top with grated Parmesan.

Bake for 15 minutes until the filling is bubbling and the cheese is golden. If it's not browning, use the broiler for a minute or two. Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 25

Barcelona Tavern: ***

Barcelona Tavern is the new restaurant that opened last week in the old Belgo space. My initial thoughts on it are that there's potential (especially the tasty food!) but there are a few kinks to work out on timing and service.

One thing I would recommend is not approaching Barcelona as a restaurant. The whole Spanish lively tapas feel they appeared to be going for in the marketing materials had me thinking of an Ox & Angela / Model Milk / 80th & Ivy hybrid. In reality, Barcelona felt more like a bar that happened to have tasty Spanish inspired food. Barcelona is apparently owned by the same people who originally opened the Met, so knowing that tidbit the ambiance makes sense.

We got seated at a table relatively quickly considering how busy the place was (it was impressively busy, though they did not have the second level open). There were four place settings on the table, and no attempt was made to remove the extra two. We also later asked to move tables due to noise level at a table next to us, and the amount of turmoil that created was definitely disproportionate to a 4 foot move… Though perhaps let's let this go for now as it is their first week.

We started with a couple of cocktails - I ordered San Sebastian cava (vodka, Aperol, strawberries and sparkling) which was delicious, and checked out Ginny Hendricks, which had interesting flavour, but was not my thing due to added lychee. They also have quite the selection of gin and tonics, which I would have tried, but the initial round of cocktails took such a long time we decided to order wine instead. Wine selection is somewhat limited, but we did find a bottle we enjoyed. It also took a very long time to get to our table though.

 At this point, we were a bit concerned that we would never get to eat, but the food actually came out very quickly. In fact, it came out all together, which is probably not what one is going for at a tapas place - by the time we tried a couple of the plates, the rest were lukewarm. Taste wise though:

Patatas Bravas - Ox & Angela definitely does it better. While  the same basic flavours were there, the potatoes just weren't crispy enough.

Spanish Slammer - basically pulled pork sliders - were excellent. Best plate we had with bold flavours that complemented each other. Note we had it first and thus it was the proper temperature.

Veal Cheek, which came with parsnip puree - I could tell this had the right flavours but it just wasn't hot at all by the time we got to it, which was disappointing.

Manchego Fondue - I enjoyed it, but not as much as I thought I would considering my obsession with manchego. The flavour of the cheese was a bit dulled.

Paprika Prawns - this was another tasty plate that suffered temperature wise. Grits were quite good with it, though I've had better interpretations of shrimp and grits in my life.

We also ordered a couple of desserts, Churros that came with dulce de leche and chocolate to dip in (excellent, then again, how do you screw up churros?) and Cowboy Bark. Cowboy Bark was a softer chocolate bark with bacon (needed more bacon!), marshmallow fluff, amaretto gelato (delicious) and pop rocks. It was not bad, but felt more like a hodge podge post dinner dessert selection that one gets going through their pantry. "Hmm, I've got this chocolate bark I made… Here's a half eaten jar of marshmallow fluff… Oooh, and pop rocks! Anything in the freezer, I must have something ice cream in there somewhere?..." Perhaps there was a unifying theme to it, but it was definitely lost on me.

Ultimately, I see good potential in Barcelona, if they work on timing and figure out a way to run a restaurant the size of Earls without it feeling like you're getting Earls level service. We shall see...

Barcelona Tavern on Urbanspoon

Monday, November 17

Modern Steak: ***

Modern Steak is a new steak restaurant / cocktail lounge hybrid situated in the old Muse location in Kensington. Muse closed back in late June, and Modern Steak opened about a month ago, so at a minimum they should get a prize for fastest venue turnaround in Calgary history (I'm looking at you, Rodney's). Now, I am not privy to reasons Muse closed, but I was sad when I found out, yet somewhat excited to see what the new concept will bring. Steak is always a good thing in my book, and even a website that looked like a 7 year old designed it in 2002 didn't deter me (yes, I am aware my own website is at best "basic", but then again I don't have investors or paying customers to entice, right? I know, I know, glass houses…)

So, my actual thoughts on the restaurant… We finally checked out Modern Steak this past weekend, and  first impressions were not bad - ultimately, it was still Muse space, but some design elements were cool (painted animal skulls on the wall) and some seemed dated (the bar) but I get the vibe they are going for. Cocktail menu was good if not as extensive as one would expect from a place calling itself a cocktail lounge. Pimm's Cup was well made (more difficult to find in Calgary than it should be!) and I did enjoy the Chunnel, a tasty gin-St-Germain-pineapple concoction I've never tried before. One little snarky note - if you are a cocktail lounge, you should probably spell St-Germain properly. Just sayin'. With the drinks, they offered up some truffle popcorn, a tasty Muse holdover which is always welcome. The wine list was quite decent as well (organized by style rather than location).

Onto the food! I ordered the french onion soup and it had good flavour, but was far too salty for my taste, even when eating it without the cheese. Tuna tartare was good, and had an interesting spicy note to it I couldn't quite place, but all I could think of is the tuna tartare I once had at Muse a few years back that literally blew my mind. I liked the Modern Steak version on its own merits, but location invited the unfavourable comparison unfortunately. The mains - I ordered the char, which was well cooked, and I enjoyed the flavour of the sauce and even the brussels sprouts. Potatoes that came on the side though were unfortunately so big they didn't really have any flavour imparted on them and just tasted like well cooked boiled potatoes. A bit of a thud there. I did try the steak which was delicious and very well cooked - it's nice to see more places that offer wagyu! The sides ranged from quite tasty (mushrooms, brussels sprouts with bacon) to just okay (asparagus with 63 degree egg which was overcooked and mashed potatoes that weren't the most flavourful). I did enjoy the mac & cheese quite a bit as well. We were all pretty stuffed by the end, but did check out the gelato with balsamic and cherries, which I would definitely recommend.

In the end, the food and service were good, but not outstanding, and the menu is not very imaginative. I see what Modern Steak is trying to do here, but for my money, Vintage is already doing it better. And I miss Muse.

Modern Steak on Urbanspoon

Saturday, November 8

My (wee little) Wedding Food Rant

Ah, weddings… Embarrassing uncles, drunk acquaintances, three toasters you never wanted in the first place - and, of course, public declaration of one true love. I've been to my share of weddings - though not as many as some of my friends - and my favourite remains, well... my own, of course (for one, I think people getting married were just the best…) Apart from that, I've been to some really great ones - and a couple terrible ones. To be honest, though, no matter the size, venue, status of open bar, or my personal views on compatibility of the soon to be newlyweds, I always dread the food.

There was a show on Food Network Canada that I used to watch, called "I Do… Let's Eat", which centered around the preparation and subsequent serving of wedding banquet food. (According to Wikipedia, it still exists, though I haven't seen it on in a long time.) If you remember, the show always focused on the ethnicity of the couple, and the first thing out of (usually) the father of the bride's mouth was "In our culture, we love weddings. Love, families coming together, blah blah blah. But what us Italians/Chinese/Mexicans/Nigerians really care about, is the food". Basically, what I learned about from "I Do… Let's Eat" is that we might be look different and speak different languages but when it comes to shoving our faces full of cake at a wedding, we are all the same. Quality of that cake, though? That's a whole other issue.

Frankly, it is nearly impossible to satisfy palates for 50 to 500 of your nearest and dearest, and it's a losing proposition to try. It used to be you were just compared with what your cousins did and what people (read: other brides) saw in wedding magazines. Now, there's Pinterest, and Style Me Pretty, and every celebrity wedding profiled in People. Before, you fed people dinner and wedding cake and perhaps a couple of stuffed mushrooms during cocktail hour and they were happy. Now there's candy buffets, and midnight junk food is a must, and did you notice how unimaginative the hors d'oeurve selection was??? As a group, our food expectations have sky rocketed (even Red Lobster is concerned with presentation these days) and yet most hotels and caterers haven't turned into Michelin star establishments overnight. And I will be the first to admit - I am one of the people with unreasonable expectations.

Here is the deal, though. I am about to blow your mind. Wedding food doesn't have to be disappointing. And here is my recipe for success:

  • If exceptional quality food is that important to you, you are going to need to step up your budget. But you already knew that.
  • Moreover, if food is important, limit your guest list. There is a reason why the French Laundry seats 60, and the Cheesecake Factory 600 (that is not even that much of an exaggeration. Cheesecake Factory in Dubai seats 526, thank you Google!)
  • I think this one is key: irrespective of your guest count and budget: limit the options, and let the venue / caterer stick to what they know. If you say picked Teatro as a venue, you should probably not expect - or request - they do traditional Thai food.  That's an extreme example, but anyone who has watched Top Chef knows that going outside of your comfort zone and trying to do too much will generally not produce desired results. 
  • One important note: if you did a tasting (and please do a tasting) of the food that is in the chef's "comfort zone" and it's still not great, remember that it's not going to taste better on the wedding day - this is again an obvious one, but thought I would point it out.
  • You are not going to please everyone. There will always be people who will complain (this applies not just to food, but everything in wedding planning - and frankly life). Ignore them and make sure you are happy. 
  • Lastly, guests: lower your expectations (I will try to follow my own advice). You are here to support your loved ones, and food, after all, is just fuel to ensure you have enough energy to do the chicken dance.