Edmonton Things To Do & Event Review: Christmas Glow

Lit up displays are found throughout the Christmas Light Gardens

If you follow any other popular Edmonton bloggers on social media, it’s likely that you’ve already heard of this. But, Christmas Glow is new this year, and it’s touted as the largest indoor festival of its kind around the city. I was fed a paid post on Instagram back in at the end of September. Since they were offering a discount (approximately 35 per cent off) as an early bird deal, I decided to grab a couple of tickets for me and Kirk to attend on my birthday. At $35.88 for both of us, I thought it might be worth the visit.

Santa’s Reindeers

Flash forward two months later, and it was finally here. We drove all the way to the Enjoy Centre in St. Albert on a Thursday night, hoping we’d make it for our timed entry (we chose the 6pm to 7pm slot). When we turned on to Riel Drive, everything slowed to a crawl. The venue does have a decent amount of parking, but cars were also lined up and down each side of the street. Thankfully, we managed to find something along the road. Thus, we walked a couple of blocks to get to the building. Although, once in the vicinity of the parking lot, we did notice a handful of spots, so patience may reward you.

Upon entering the building, we turned to our right towards the Moonflower Room. That’s where Hole’s typically holds a lot of large events. Plus, in the summertime, it’s where they run their garden market. All in, there is 60,000 square feet of space available, and Christmas Glow used every bit of it, including the greenhouse that is usually blocked off from the public whenever I’ve been there.

This is in the Christmas Light Gardens. Look at the reflection in the glass ceiling!

As we approached the door, I noticed that there was absolutely no one waiting to get inside. Three or four staff were standing about just looking for something to do. One of them eagerly waved us over, and, without even looking at the date or time on our ticket, she scanned them and told us to have fun. The minute we stepped through the threshold, I was overwhelmed. The place was insanely packed with people. They had fit in a few food stands to the left of us, so there were multiple lines snaking around. In the very middle of the main area was a grouping of tables where patrons could enjoy live entertainment on stage. Every single seat was occupied. To the right was a gift shop that seemed to belong to the Enjoy Centre. All the way at the very back of the room was the Glow-camotive, a small train that circles around it’s allotted zone.

We attempted to zoom past all of that without tripping over anyone, and entered the Christmas Light Gardens. Cordoned into different areas, there, you’ll find a licensed bar, interactive hanging lights (this was quite magical, especially with the reflection in the glass ceiling), Santa, glowing swings, mistletoe, light up hopscotch, a horse-drawn carriage, Disney-themed princesses, a musical light tunnel, and numerous other displays. Totaling over a million LED lights, it’s quite impressive. I certainly appreciated the work that went into it. Kirk and I got some pretty great photo ops in there. However, it was also over crowded. They say that they’ve sold tickets using time slots to help control that issue, but once people are in, they can stay as long as they want, and it seemed to me it was getting busier and busier as the night progressed.

Many of the children were super excited (I understand; I was a kid once, too), and that’s okay. Yet, I was practically mowed over by a few who weren’t watching where they were going, so needless to say this wasn’t exactly my cup of tea. With everything mentioned above, as well as a Magic Castle Playground and an area to write letters to Santa, Christmas Glow is definitely geared heavily towards families and kids. That’s not to say that it’s an absolute no go for childless adults (to the organizers, please consider adding adult nights in the future!). It’s just probably best for those with a lot more patience than I possess. I was only able to handle this for about an hour and then I had to go. I simply want to be honest about my personal feelings towards the whole thing. I’m glad that I went and had the opportunity to do so. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out to be my favourite event.

We rarely have photos together.

It wasn’t a total loss though, I did find something in the pop-up Christmas Market that was anchored by The Makers Keep. Kirk bought me the cutest print, titled “High Flyer,” of a narwhal flying with the help of a bunch of balloons from art and stationary company, Paper Canoe. That was a lovely birthday present.

Me with my new print from Paper Canoe!

If my thoughts on Christmas Glow haven’t deterred you from going, you can still buy tickets through their website. It’s running until January 19. They are closed every Sunday, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Eve. The rest of the time, they’re open from 4pm to 10pm Monday to Friday, and they start an hour earlier at 3pm on Saturdays. From December 10 to 12, they continue to offer discounted tickets at 25 per cent off available with promo code EDMONTON25. Dates that remain after will be regularly priced ($22.99 per adult; $16.99 for seniors, and children 4-12; free under 3 years of age; $69.99 for a family with 2 adults and up to 3 kids/seniors). You’ll also save a couple of bucks by ordering online versus purchasing at the gate. Happy holidays!

Edmonton Event Preview: Vignettes Design Series 2018 & Nuit Blanche

Salvador Dali is hidden in one of the Vignettes rooms.

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to attend the 2018 Vignettes Design Series VIP Gala. It was held inside Edmonton City Centre in the old ATB Branch on the ground floor (next to the 101 Street West Entrance). When we arrived, we found a huge line already snaking across the mall. It seemed that we were in for a less than exclusive event.

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When we finally made it into the Vignettes space, we were each welcomed with a tiny disposable cocktail glass filled with a couple of sips of sangria. After that, all other food (aside from what was available in the Sanctuary room) and drinks required ticket purchases at an additional cost. Needless to say, for a $40 price tag per guest, I wasn’t too impressed with how this event was executed. It became much too packed way too quickly, making it extremely difficult to maneuver around (architecturally, the overall footprint is small).

Mostly, my hope of getting to mix and mingle in-person with the artists that had worked on the individual rooms was dashed. They were much too busy with the hoards of other guests that had also paid to get into this party. While I do understand that the money collected from ticket sales does go back into the creation of future Vignettes events, I would rather that the organizers made it a little more low key. Spend less money on getting a DJ (it’s so hard to talk or hear) and expensive catering and allow people who want a more in-depth experience to get just that.

Still, I don’t want to take away from the creativity of the work or the artists themselves. They did a phenomenal job transforming mundane offices, closets and walls into over a dozen fantastical or modern spaces. My favourites included a hidden bar, a rainforest (designed by a 4th grader and built by her father), a living space that utilized hydroponics (FRESCO Culinary provided snacks!), and The Grand Palastrio where time is questioned.

Thankfully, the Vignettes gallery will be open to the public every Thursday to Saturday for a month starting on Friday, September 28 and running until Saturday, October 27. While it won’t have the same crazy atmosphere of the VIP Gala (if that’s more your thing), tickets are only $15 per person and they will have timed entrances to help mitigate overcrowding. I expect that this setup will give visitors a chance to really engage with what’s in front of them without feeling rushed to move along. If you can fit this into your schedule before it’s gone, I do recommend taking the time to see this.

The Grand Palastrio

The launch of the public gallery for Vignettes also coincides with Nuit Blanche Edmonton 2018. The latter is a free late-night contemporary art party that takes place from 7pm on Saturday, September 29 to 7am on Sunday, September 30. Nuit Blanche is in its second full scale iteration (technically the third year in the city though), and this particular event happens for just the one evening throughout the downtown area. To find out what’s in store for this year’s programming, click here. Vignettes has been incorporated into Nuit Blanche and, based on the ticketing site, it appears as though they will not be charging for entry into that area during Nuit Blanche hours. However, you may want to check with Vignettes in advance just to be sure.

Nuit Blanche is an experience like no other with a lot of volunteers working behind the scenes to get the exhibits up and running (I was one in 2015). Although the weather forecast is looking chilly on Saturday night, venture out! Bundle up in a warm coat with a hat and gloves, and maybe bring a thermos with your favourite hot beverage. Participating works come from artists across the globe, and everyone who attends is bound to discover something that they fall in love with.

SABOR Restaurant’s 3rd Annual Seafood Festival

Portuguese Surf & Turf

Portuguese Surf & Turf

After writing a profile about SABOR Restaurant for the Local Good, I was invited to attend the launch dinner for their 3rd Annual Seafood Festival. Taking place on Tuesday evening, I had the pleasure of experiencing just some of the offerings on this year’s menu.

Designed in a partnership between Chef Lino Oliveira of SABOR and Chef Jan Hansen of Hotel Arts in Calgary, the menu showcases a variety of dishes crafted using seafood approved by Ocean Wise. Served up family-style, guests sampled a range of plates including sardina escalivada, gambas al ajillo, scallop & limpet ceviche, heirloom tomato & queijo fresco montadito (the only one served without seafood was essentially a bruschetta on toasted bread) and amêijoas á bulhão pato.

The latter is a fancy name for clams steamed in white wine, garlic and cilantro. I usually can’t eat food cooked with cilantro as the herb is not a friend to my taste buds. Yet, somehow, I loved these. Maybe the broth helped to wash away the larger pieces of cilantro leaving me with the white wine and garlic reduction. All I know is that the ingredients were relatively simple, but the flavour truly popped.

The sardina escalivada surprised me. I don’t usually eat sardines as I find them to be too fishy and/or salty, but these were wonderfully seasoned and paired well with a bed of eggplant.

Gambas al Ajillo

Gambas al Ajillo

However, my favourite starter of the night had to be the gambas al ajillo, which are jumbo shrimp complete with shell and head prepared using wine and garlic. We hand peeled them open to reveal delicious meat and, as Lino instructed us, we sucked all of the juice out of those heads. Manners aside, everyone seated at the two long tables took to the scampi with gusto!

Croquetas de Bacalao

Croquetas de Bacalao

Appetizers were followed by Jan’s croquetas de bacalao, a dish of lingcod potato fritters with a spicy hot piri piri aioli. Some thought that the spice was a bit strong, but I quite liked it. I found that the heat started strong to give the dish a kick, yet it dissipated quickly enough so as not to overwhelm my palate.

The stars of the evening were absolutely the two main courses though.

Our first was the caldeirada de peixe, consisting of thick cuts of supple sablefish with seared skin still on and full lobster tails bathed in a savoury saffron-lobster broth. I found that the skin of the sablefish wasn’t crisp enough for me to enjoy the texture, but the mouthfeel of the actual meat was great. It fell apart in perfect pieces and the fish really soaked up the broth. As for the lobster, it’s not often that I get to eat it, so it was a real delight to have some that was so perfectly prepared.

Somehow I plated my Portuguese surf and turf perfectly.

Somehow I plated my Portuguese surf and turf perfectly.

Our last entrĂ©e was Jan’s take on Portuguese surf and turf. Chorizo-stuffed Alberta lamb rump was matched with a smoked paprika charred octopus. Both were served over a bed of migas – black kale, pine nuts and white navy beans – that provided a light citrus taste. Personally, I would have preferred the black kale to be less wilted, but I will admit that the more I ate it, the more I enjoyed it. The lamb was so tender that it didn’t need to be cut with a knife, and the curled octopus tentacle was fantastically charred just enough to give it that smoky, spiced flavor without overpowering the meat.

Caramel flan for dessert.

Caramel flan for dessert.

Although SABOR was promoting their Seafood Festival, they did not find a way to incorporate seafood into dessert (is that even a possibility?). Instead, they offered up a light and creamy caramel flan with almonds, walnuts and fresh raspberries, which is quite fitting for a restaurant that is known for working with Iberian, Mediterranean and Portuguese cuisines.

Guests during the preview event were also dazzled by the musical stylings of co-owner Christian Mena, who showed off his strong pipes by serenading us with a couple of songs. Having heard that Christian used to be a member of local band Maracujah and that he once toured with Neil Patrick Harris in the Broadway musical Rent, it wasn’t necessarily a shock to hear how good he was. Rather, it was a real treat for everyone there.

Chef Jan Hansen of Hotel Arts and Chef Lino Oliveira of SABOR.

Chef Jan Hansen of Hotel Arts and Chef Lino Oliveira of SABOR.

SABOR’s Seafood Festival runs through the month of August, and I’d highly recommend it. This is the ideal place to unwind with friends and/or family. The restaurant has a warm and welcoming atmosphere and the food has always been superb. Plus, be sure to visit from Wednesday to Saturday when they have live music. Perhaps you’ll even catch Christian at the mike. No matter what, if you’re a seafood fan, you won’t be disappointed.

Read more about SABOR in my original review

Downtown Dining Week, Why Not YEG Restaurant Week?

The Downtown Business Association (DBA) is celebrating the end of, what I suspect was, another successful run of Downtown Dining Week (DTDW) in Edmonton, Alberta. For the eleventh year in a row, they have brought diners out to try menus from 30 different restaurants located in the city’s core. Over a period of ten days, people were able to sample a variety of menus that included $15 lunches as well as $25 or $50 dinners.

An ad for Downtown Dining Week that I pulled from the Edmonton Journal website.

An ad for Downtown Dining Week that I pulled from the Edmonton Journal website.

Being that I work in the area, I took every chance I had to eat at as many places as I could over the 10-day period. It only amounted to five meals for me, but, personally, I couldn’t imagine having such rich meals for both lunch and supper every day in such a short amount of time anyway. I especially savoured the opportunity to visit restaurants that have a reputation for great food, but that I may not typically go to on a whim because of the prices, which meant I ventured over to the Hardware Grill, Madison’s Grill, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Sorrentino’s Downtown and Normand’s Bistro. All of them did an excellent job of helping us to watch our wallets while delivering top-notch food, even when the dish was as simple as a pulled pork sandwich.

Although, in my opinion, a few establishments should have worked a bit harder to entice people; they could have ventured away from their regular dishes to experiment with something new, or refrained from picking the least expensive plates from their usual selection of fare (if it costs the same to dine with them during DTDW as it does on any other night, it means it isn’t really “specialty-priced” as per the description on the DBA site) as part of the attraction of the event is that it provides deals where they aren’t typically found, making it a lot more affordable. Regardless, the majority of the DTDW menus had variety, giving you the choice of more than one item per course that ranged from salads and sandwiches to hearty pork and steak dishes or fish to pastas. Every lunch consisted of two courses and each dinner had at least three (appetizer, entrĂ©e and dessert).

The Downtown Dining Week menu at Madison's Grill, along with their regular menu.

The Downtown Dining Week menu at Madison’s Grill, along with their regular menu.

Now, my qualm with DTDW is that it continues to remain the same size. The food festival, if you will, hasn’t really expanded year after year. In fact, it may have even shrunk slightly in terms of the number of restaurants participating. Some of the same restaurants come back annually, others are replaced with new ones (the Confederation Lounge, Tavern 1903, Normand’s Bistro, The Burg, De Dutch (see previous review) and Fionn MacCool’s are the latest additions). I like that there are repeats because, if I didn’t have a chance to go to one the previous year, maybe I’ll be able to visit the next time. However, I would love it if the list of new places partaking got bigger every March.

To me, Edmonton is a city with a burgeoning food scene that deserves to be showcased. More and more chefs and entrepreneurs seem to be taking the leap and succeeding at making Alberta’s capital first-rate in terms of the availability and assortment of quality places to dine out. In my mind, DTDW should be growing, not just sustaining. I picture it being at least as large as Calgary’s The Big Taste, which is citywide and has more than 70 “Revolutioneateries” getting involved over ten days. Ideally, it would become similar to NYC Restaurant Week, lasting about three weeks (sometimes extended) and runs both in the winter and summer seasons.

Of course, this might be wishful thinking on my part. I can only speculate as to the difficulty of putting something like this together. I’m sure the DBA has attempted to increase the number of establishments taking part in DTDW. I asked my friend who works for the urban planning office with the City of Edmonton what streets constitute the downtown area and while she wasn’t able to answer me right away, I did Wikipedia it. According to the information logged on the wiki, downtown Edmonton is bounded by 109 Street, 105 Avenue, 97 Street and 97 Avenue. If that’s the case, the DBA has stuck within the appropriate grid. Yet, some consider surrounding communities like Oliver to the west to also be part of downtown. That would include everything from 109 Street up to 124 Street from Jasper Avenue to 105 Avenue. Can you visualize how amazing DTDW would be for all you foodies out there if that area were included?

More delicious food like this dish from Hardware Grill - Fresh Burrata Mozzarella!

More delicious food like this dish from Hardware Grill – Fresh Burrata Mozzarella!

Dishcrawl, an online community of culinary enthusiasts, with a branch in Edmonton has organized events focused around various parts of the city, 124th Street being one of them. I attended a crawl where we walked door-to-door between eight establishments tasting samples and drinks, but not full-out meals. I think that those restaurants, having participated in Dishcrawl’s Neighbourfood event, would be highly interested in adding their names to a dining week list (I could be wrong; I don’t know how it ultimately affects the costs and revenues for the restaurants, but the publicity that may lead to repeat business is a big positive for them, I would think).

Would that mean the DBA would still be the sole host of Dining Week in that type of incarnation? Maybe not. It would likely mean several separate dining weeks spread out throughout the year, or more hands in the pot with a joint event put on by the DBA and the 124 Street Business Association (really, any number of other groups that are willing to take part) to make this something that brings the Edmonton restaurant community and food lovers together.

It’s all about providing extra exposure to those that participate, no matter where they are located, and expanding the dining week (or month!) theme so that Edmontonians can truly appreciate the diversity of amazing food that exists in this city while, hopefully, finding some new favourites. That’s the goal I see!