Unconventional Las Vegas

To celebrate my 30th birthday a week ago, my friend and I flew down to Las Vegas for a long weekend trip. Itinerary in hand, we had no plans to party or gamble over the four days. This being our third holiday in Vegas within a two year period, we didn’t need to go dancing and drinking until the clubs close at 4am. No, this vacation was going to be different and unconventional – relaxing, eye-opening and filled with great food and a bit of shopping.

Here’s the info on where we stayed, what we drove, what we ate and where we went. I’ll try to be as brief as possible and let the photos do most of the talking.

Hotel

Whenever we go to Vegas, we tend to stay at a different hotel. On this occasion, we purchased a flight and hotel package through Expedia that included accommodations at The Mirage. Upon check-in, we were given keys for a non-smoking, two queen bed room on the 15th floor. The room was clean (although the countertop was a bit dusty) and spacious with enough room to lay out our luggage and walk around.

There is a fridge under the counter, but it’s a fully stocked minibar, which I didn’t dare touch because you just never know and my money isn’t going towards overpriced mini bottles of alcohol or bags of candy. I do wish that there was some empty space in the fridge to store some leftovers though. Otherwise, the beds were comfortable and housekeeping never bothered us in the mornings.

Overall, I liked the hotel enough to consider another stay there and I would recommend it to others.

On a side note, I still question why Vegas hotels continue to charge people a daily resort fee. This is especially the case during the colder months when amenities like their pools are often closed for the season. What exactly are we paying for?

Car Rental

For this trip, a car was required for drives to the Grand Canyon and Valley of Fire State Park. We rented through E-Z Rent-A-Car because it was one of the cheaper options. It was easy enough to get to the large rental location because of the shuttle bus from the airport, but the problem with E-Z is that we thought what we paid through Expedia would cover the entire cost. Unfortunately, liability insurance (we thought my friend’s credit card coverage would be enough) still had to be added on top of that, meaning we didn’t really save any money. We’ll probably look at other options next time.

The one good thing is that we were upgraded to a nice sage green (they listed the colour as white) Prius for the weekend, which was really efficient on gas.

Shows

Instead of going to Cirque du Soleil or a concert this time, we decided to change things up by checking out some new shows.

Lipshtick

Our first evening in Vegas, we ventured to the Sands Showroom at the Venetian for Lipshtick. They’ve been running shows under this name for the whole year to showcase female comediennes. The headliner for the night was Whitney Cummings who was hilarious. I’m actually happy to have seen her do live stand-up. She can be crass, but she has great rapport with the audience and she’s quick on her feet with jokes and comebacks.

Whitney Cummings will be back in Vegas for another show in January under the Lipshtick banner. I’m hoping that they continue to add new dates because they’ve also had Iliza Shlesinger in the past and her Netflix shows always make me laugh out loud.

Mat Franco: Magic Reinvented Nightly

America’s Got Talent 2014 winner (I never watched the series), Mat Franco, now has his own residency in Las Vegas at the LINQ. Neither my friend or I had seen a magic show in Vegas (I’m fairly certain I haven’t), so we were game to check it out.

Mat Franco is definitely a showman and he has got his tricks down. I was impressed with his humour and his sleight of hand. Also, I’m one of those people who doesn’t think about how a trick was done. I don’t need to know. I just want to be amazed.

Food

Jean Philippe Patisserie at Aria

For lunch when we arrived in Vegas, we ate savoury Italian crepes at Jean Philippe Patisserie. The two of us had each redeemed myVEGAS vouchers, so we got to eat for free. The crepes were huge with plenty of veggies for the filling and a good portion of prosciutto on top. This was a satisfying meal.

Sage at Aria

Dinner led us back to the Aria hotel where we indulged in the $89 Signature menu at Sage. To start, we ordered the Pearfection cocktail, recommended to us by our wonderful server. Bread (with butter and salt) was provided as well as an amuse bouche.

The Signature menu consists of your choice of four courses. Both of us had the wagyu beef tartar. That dish was fantastic. I could have eaten 10 plates. My friend had the salt roasted beets next. It was a beautiful dish that looked delicious. I had the Maine day boat scallops, which were perfectly seared and tender. The salted caramel reduction was rich and went well with the slightly bitter greens and the earthy mushrooms.

For our mains, my friend had the 48 hour beef belly and I selected the Beecher’s Farm whey fed pork loin. The bite I had of the beef belly was really succulent. The pork loin wasn’t as juicy as I would have liked, but it was tasty and not too heavy.

Knowing that I was celebrating my birthday, our server had told the kitchen about the occasion and my pumpkin clafoutis dessert arrived with a candle in it. That was a nice touch that I didn’t expect.

Tableau at Wynn

Before our excursion to the North Premium Outlets on day 2, we stopped at the Wynn for brunch at Tableau. What a gorgeous restaurant. We were seated near the entrance by a window that looked out into the garden. I didn’t see further back, but I think there’s an atrium space with more tables that would have been lovely.

My friend had a juice and I had a smoothie (vanilla strawberry balsamic) to wake us up. Both were refreshing. The smoothie was interesting because the balsamic made the drink more acidic than it would have been without. Judging from the strawberry that was placed on the rim, if it had just been vanilla with strawberry, it would have been very sweet because the strawberry was the best I’d had in a long time. I would love it if we could get such amazingly flavourful berries at home.

Viewing the menu, we both chose the duck hash & eggs. Our server told us that was one of the most popular dishes, so much so that it has never been removed from the menu even when they make updates. The duck was smoky, the eggs were fluffy, the pastry was decadently buttery and the hollandaise sauce was lighter than normal.

Sprinkles Cupcakes

Prior to our Vegas visit, I joined the Sprinkles Birthday Club and received an email offer that allowed me to redeem for a free cupcake on my celebratory day.

This turned out to be our quick “dinner” before the Mat Franco show. I ended up getting the pumpkin cupcake (seasonal) along with an additional chai latte flavour, which was my favourite when we picked up Sprinkles in San Diego earlier this year.

Sprinkles cupcakes are awesome. However, I will say that two of them eaten back-to-back does cause sugar overload, and I don’t say that often.

BLT Burger at The Mirage

After the magic show and a drink at the Seahorse casino bar at Caesars Palace, we were feeling pretty famished, so we decided to head back to The Mirage for some food at BLT Burger.

This was a great choice. The burgers were stacked high and for a decent price you could add a drink and a side of fries (skinny, curly, fat, waffle or sweet potato). My friend opted for the buffalo chicken burger and I went for the sesame tuna. Everything about mine was scrumptious. What was most surprising was seeing that they stacked two steaks (not extremely thick though) of ahi tuna on top of each other for my sandwich. Our crisp sweet potato fries were also accompanied by some ranch dip. Yum!

The Buffet at Monte Carlo

The reviews for the Monte Carlo buffet were less than stellar, but going in with lower expectations meant that I was pretty pleased with what we got for breakfast.

Eating for free because of another redeemed myVEGAS reward made it all the more worth it.

I had some banana bread french toast, hash potatoes, potatoes au gratin, bacon, chicken apple sausage, fruit and a glass of club soda and I was ready to go.

I would have tried more of the food, but I didn’t have a big appetite that morning. If I had, I would have gone for the roast beef, which some reviewers have said is often dry, yet it looked cooked to a nice medium rare when I walked by.

Maybe we can give this place another go.

In-N-Out Burger

On our way to the Grand Canyon, we paused in Kingman, AZ at the In-N-Out Burger for a snack.

My friend had been wanting to try their burgers for a while, so we thought this was the perfect opportunity. Plus, celebrities always rave about this chain.

Sticking to the regular menu (they also have the not-so-secret one), we both ordered a single patty cheeseburger without onion. I have to say that I was underwhelmed.

When we were waiting for our orders, I saw customers picking up their double-doubles and they looked good. However, when I ate my burger, the patty, while fresh, was thinner than I thought it would be. The meat itself wasn’t that seasoned, so most of the flavour came from their special spread. By far, the best part of the burger was the toasted bun.

Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill at MGM

Another day, another deal from myVEGAS. This time, we got a free entree with purchase of another during dinner at the MGM Grand’s Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill.

The restaurant is the bees knees. Our server was friendly and quick to offer his suggestions and favourites off of the menu. We each started with a pineapple mojito to quench our thirst. Those were great. I would absolutely order that drink again.

A basket was also provided with two types of bread. The onion bread is amazing. In fact, we asked for more and our server practically gave us a whole loaf.

We continued our meal with a plate each of the short rib entree and shared sides of roasted cauliflower and brussels sprouts with pancetta.

The amount of food that came with our order was crazy. We ended up packing half of it with us (bread included) for breakfast and snacks the next day.

If you ever go there, and you like meat, I highly recommend that you try the short ribs. The beef is divine and I swear that they gave us twenty ounces of meat per plate. We could have shared one entree with the same sides and it would have been more than enough to feed the two of us.

Sushi Roku

With just a little over an hour before we had to leave for our flight home, we grabbed a quick dinner at Sushi Roku in the Caesars Palace Forum Shops.

Their happy hour is a great deal and I ended up getting a small order of albacore tataki and three maki rolls – spicy tuna, rock shrimp tempura & jalapeno and salmon & avocado – for $29, including tax and tip.

The service is good and the food is prepared fast while the seafood is fresh.

More info about Sushi Roku can be found in my last post about Vegas.

Fun Stuff

North Premium Outlets

Since we happened to be in Vegas the day after Black Friday, I expected to find better discounts and deals at the outlet mall, but they weren’t as great as I thought they would be.

That’s not to say I didn’t find anything. Actually, we did a lot of damage in five hours, and we weren’t even able to get to every store that we had planned to stop at.

One of the reasons for that is the addition of an extra strip to the mall. An associate at the new Marc by Marc Jacobs outlet store said that they had just opened earlier this year. They also now have a Neiman Marcus Last Call Studio, Saks Fifth Avenue OFF Fifth, Dolce & Gabbana and AllSaints among others, so it was a lot to take in.

Grand Canyon National Park

On day 3, we drove the four and a half hours to the south rim of Grand Canyon National Park, avoiding the exorbitant entrance fees charged by the Hualapai tribe at the west rim.

Once through the south entrance, we drove along making stops at many of the parking lots. We got out to walk along the rim at each location. The best spot that we went to was the Desert View Watchtower. With the canyon and the Colorado River before our eyes, it was a beautiful sight to behold. The watchtower provided various vantage points to take photos and it is also home to an extremely showy raven.

It was windy and cold that day, but nature is amazing and, if we weren’t freezing and it wasn’t going to be dark so soon, we would have stayed there longer.

On the drive back to Vegas, I noticed that the sky was so dark that all of the stars could be seen. They sparkled so brightly. We ended up taking the exit onto the Kingman Wash Access Road, so we could stop and soak it all in.

Valley of Fire State Park

Rather than revisiting Red Rock Canyon, we decided to go somewhere different during this vacation.

I came across images of Valley of Fire State Park on Instagram about a month before we were set to leave and it looked beautiful.

About an hour away from the Strip, we were able to fit it in on our last day in Vegas.

Although we didn’t quite make it to every feature of the park, we managed to see Atlatl Rock, Arch Rock, Beehives, Rainbow Vista, White Domes and Fire Canyon/Silica Dome within two to three hours. That’s only about half of the sights in the park, not including various hikes that you can do as well. Some Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep also graced us with their presence.

We’re certainly planning to go to Valley of Fire again. But, we’ll be a bit more prepared next time. Here’s a tip: bring hiking boots with excellent grip and high ankle coverage. Much of the park is covered in deep sand, which makes for a difficult walk in basic flats or runners.

This was another whirlwind holiday down south. I like that we’re going off the beaten track to explore more of what Las Vegas and Nevada have to offer, and we’ll continue to do so on subsequent visits.

Again, I hope that this information inspires others to expand their horizons whenever they might find themselves there.

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Continued Explorations: Autumn in NYC

Grand Central Terminal

Grand Central Terminal

Every so often I get the urge to revisit New York City. People always ask me why I go there as frequently as I do. The reason is because it’s a vibrant place to be, but one that I can easily leave behind when I want to go back to the more slow-paced lifestyle that is Edmonton.

This latest trip was one that had been discussed for sometime. However, due to other circumstances, it didn’t come to fruition until this year.

Over a decade since my friend and I had first traveled there together, we made plans to go back and experience the City that Never Sleeps from a more mature perspective.

Hearing that autumn is a gorgeous time of year there, we booked our holiday to run through the first week of October. Although the weather proved to work against us throughout part of our vacation (leading to itinerary changes), it still turned out to be a fantastic several days.

Only ever pausing to sleep in our room at the Seton Hotel, our trip was a mishmash of neighbourhood explorations, music, museums, culture and food as we clocked about 60 kilometers and over a hundred thousand steps through the streets of Manhattan.

The following is a daily account, with pictures, of our adventures. I hope they inspire some of you to explore restaurants and places that are a little off the beaten path.

DAY 1

Accommodations: Seton Hotel

The Seton is a clean, comfortable, renovated boutique hotel. We stayed in a premium room with two double beds and a private bathroom (a number of their rooms have shared baths). It is actually quite spacious if there are only a couple of people staying together. There are a number of spots to layout your suitcases without it feeling overly cluttered. The bathroom is also nice, and while they don’t provide any body lotion for use, they do supply soaps, shampoo, conditioner and packaged makeup wipes.

It’s important to note that your room key must be dropped off with the staff every time you leave the hotel. There is also no in-room safe (the front desk has one) or fridge in each room. But, they have a lovely lounge on the main floor. They also provide free tea and coffee as well as umbrellas that can be taken out on rainy days. On our last day there, the hotel held our luggage between checkout time and when we had to leave for the airport, which was handy.

As with most large cities, there is usually construction nearby and the Seton wasn’t immune. During the weekdays, workers typically started up with the jackhammer just after 8 AM. As luck would have it, we were always already awake, so it didn’t make much of a difference to us. Yet it’s worth noting that you may want to request a room towards the back of the hotel away from the street and the elevator.

The location itself was extremely convenient. Situated on 40th Street between 3rd and Lexington Avenues, the Seton was only a few blocks away from Grand Central Terminal and from Fifth Avenue. Although it was often quiet late in the evening, it always felt safe.

Staring at the art on the walls of the Cafe Duke

Staring at the art on the walls of the Cafe Duke

Nourishment: Bohemian

Bohemian is an exclusive, referral-only restaurant located in the East Village of Manhattan. It’s hidden behind a butcher’s shop. The address is actually quite easy to find online. However, you do have to obtain an invite directly from the restaurant or get the phone number from someone who has previously dined in order to make a reservation. Walk-ins are not guaranteed a table.

After a while wandering the neighbourhood to kill time before our 9 P.M. reservation, my friend and I opted to go with the 6-course tasting menu. It included a Farmer’s Fresh Vegetable Fondue, Uni Croquette, Washu-Beef Short Rib Sashimi, Pan Roasted Branzino, Washu-Beef Mini Burger OR Sashimi Rice Bowl and a Yuzu Pannacotta.

Needless to say, our starving bellies were more than stuffed after our two and a half hour dinner. By the time we worked our way through the majority of the branzino, we could have given up. But, we powered through like champs and finished the entirety of our meal.

The staff were great there and the food is worth the slightly increased effort required to book a table. It’s especially good value for the price – a drink and six dishes came to less than $70 before tax.

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DAY 2

Attractions: Central Park, The Met, Lincoln Center, The Book of Mormon, Times Square

The forecast called for rain, but we seemed to luck out in the morning as we strolled from Norma’s through Central Park to The Met. Having been to NYC several times, this was my first visit in the autumn, and the most time I’ve ever spent in the park. As we meandered through all the areas on the east side of the park between 59th and 85th Streets, we were surprised that the trees were still so green. It wasn’t quite the imagined yellow, orange, red paradise that we expected, but it was still a beautiful and relaxing respite from the rest of the bustling city.

Eventually, we made it to The Met where we spent hours perusing the maze of collections housed in its walls. The American Wing and European Paintings were my favourite. Sadly, the Costume Institute collection on the ground floor was closed off, so we didn’t get to see that, which is unfortunate. Their most recent exhibit, China: Through the Looking Glass, looked like a superb view on fashion, so it’s too bad that it closed before we arrived.

On our way back to midtown, we cut through Central Park. Unfortunately, we got caught in the rain. The trees helped to shield us a bit, but we were still a damp by the time we managed to make it to Lincoln Centre. My one wish is that we could have seen up-close the two large murals by Marc Chagall that hang in the lobby of the Metropolitan Opera House. The unmistakable style caught my eye through the windows of the building and I didn’t want to look away. If only it wasn’t pouring out, so we could have lingered longer.

A performance of The Book of Mormon at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre gave us a break from the rainy weather. Finally, after years wanting to see this show, I did. Was it worth the money? Probably not, but the Mormon song and dance numbers and the spun stories were highly entertaining, especially for those who are not easily offended.

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As we exited the theatre, our evening finished off in Times Square. Other tourists jostled past us as we found our way to the subway station and we called it a night.

Nourishment: NORMA’s, Whole Foods, Shake Shack

NORMA’s at Le Parker Meridien has been a favourite of mine ever since my cousin took me there for brunch back in 2009. Every trip since, I have made a point of going there. This visit did not disappoint. I’d been thinking about the restaurant’s Waz-Za Waffle for months and it was as good as I remembered. My friend’s Red Berry Risotto “Oatmeal” was hearty and scrumptious as well.

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Later in the day, after our long perusal of The Met and two lengthy walks through Central Park and photos at Lincoln Center, we made a quick pit stop at the Whole Foods at Time Warner Center. We had intended to buy a bit of sushi and eat in their food court area, but it was so full that we weren’t able to get a seat. We ended up trying to sit on the floor of the mall to eat until security told us we had to get up. The guard was nice about it though. He said we could stand and eat wherever we wanted.

The Midtown East Shake Shack just down the block from our hotel was perfect for quick late-night meals or snacks after shows. My friend’s featured bratwurst burger looked so tastily greasy that I was a little jealous when I decided to eat the chicken dog instead. However, the chicken dog was perfectly satisfying and light enough just before bed.

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Late night snack from the Shake Shack

DAY 3

Attractions: NYPL Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Grand Central Terminal, MoMA, Terminal 5

When I was last in NYC back in December 2013, I pretty much just stumbled upon the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library. Located on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, it was so close to our hotel that I had to take my friend there this time. Having studied to be a librarian, I knew that she would appreciate the building and the rooms housed within. We arrived before it opened to the public for the day, which gave us time to take some photos in the rain. So, as soon as the doors were unlocked, we booked it inside.

The NYPL provides free tours at 11 A.M. and 2 P.M. Mondays to Saturdays. Our original plan was to check out the library shop until the tour started, but we ended up skipping the tour because it was quite crowded and it was hard to hear the guides. Instead, we wandered around on our own and stopped to watch the excellent video about the building in the library’s theatre, which I would certainly recommend.

Following the NYPL, we headed over to Grand Central Terminal for a guided tour led by a docent from the Municipal Art Society of NYC. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable. She took us into different areas of the building while telling us about the history of the Vanderbilt family, the Biltmore Hotel, the decline of the terminal and Jackie O’s part in saving the landmark. Despite tired feet, the tour was incredibly interesting and worth it.

We took advantage of MoMA’s Free Friday Night sponsored by UNIQLO (if you’re tight on money, you can save a lot by hitting up most of the museums on evenings where entry is complimentary; check out their websites for information). Arriving shortly after 4 P.M., one of the museum staff members told us that the wait to get inside could be up to an hour and a half, but we stuck it out. Thankfully, construction scaffolding shielded us from the rain the majority of the time we were outside, and it really only took about 30 minutes for us to make it around the block and through the doors. That gave us about three full hours to view the top five floors, which we were able to do. Although it was packed in some of the galleries, it actually wasn’t too bad. We even managed to find bench seating every so often when we felt like taking a breather. Some of the rooms even emptied out enough to allow us more time and space to soak in the art.

Our day finished off at Terminal 5, a nightclub turned live music venue, where we saw The NBHD and Bad Suns. It’s a neat venue with three levels, but its sight lines aren’t the best if you’re not one of the people who gets a spot leaning against the railings.

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Nourishment: Cipriani Le Specialità

I wasn’t feeling all that well during the Grand Central Terminal tour, which I chalked up to hunger. Therefore, as soon as we finished there, we sought out a place to eat. The food court in the lower level was way too warm, so we went outside for some fresh air. Along the way, we came across Cipriani Le Specialità. It’s part of the Cipriani group of restaurants, but it’s a teeny little fast service eatery with a handful of tables where you can either eat-in or takeaway. The day’s feature steak and pasta was actually perfect for a quick meal and I felt much better afterwards.

Steak and pasta for lunch at Cipriani La

Steak and pasta for lunch at Cipriani Le Specialità

DAY 4

Attractions: Shopping at Century 21, New Yorker Festival

Original plans for the day had included a Watson Adventures High Line scavenger hunt. However, the company decided to cancel the event the day before due to the dismal weather. That left us with a fairly wide open schedule. This was the only day that we slept in at all. Thankfully, there was no noise from construction on the Saturday.

A subway performer packing up her things

A subway performer packing up her things

Once we finished lunch at Time Warner Center, we took the subway over to the Century 21 department store by Lincoln Center, which we had passed by a couple days earlier. It was not my intention to do any shopping during this particular trip, but entering Century 21 quashed that notion. I walked away with a few things, all useful to me, and a bill that indicated savings of over $350. That’s my attempt to look at my receipt with a glass half full.

A dancer practicing his moves

A dancer practicing his moves

Later in the evening, we went to a New Yorker Festival talk between Lauren Collins and Ellie Kemper. I had to pick up my tickets from will call and then we joined a very long line up. As it turns out, the line up was really for the Patti Smith event in the same venue, but none of the staff pointed that out to anyone. When we finally got to the front of the line, we were turned away and asked to wait outside until they started seating for Ellie Kemper. It still worked out though. If that hadn’t happened, I probably wouldn’t have spotted Damian Lewis of Homeland fame leaving from his talk, and the ticket taker made sure that those who were already at the door for Ellie Kemper were the first to enter. We ended up getting seats right in front of the stage. Ellie Kemper is absolutely hilarious and charming. It was great to end the night with some laughs.

Nourishment: Landmarc at Time Warner Center, Bouchon Bakery, Mira Sushi & Izakaya

As luck would have it, the cousin I stayed in NYC with back in 2009 was in town for a few days. He treated us to a wonderful lunch at Landmarc. We left the decisions to him and were met with delicious appetizers of fois gras terrine, fried calamari, and roasted marrow bones along with shared mains of certified black angus marinated skirt steak with chimichurri sauce and chicken sausage cavatelli. He always has the best suggestions when it comes to food.

Before we parted ways, he took us next door to Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery where we split a lemon tart and chocolate cheesecake between the three of us. As great as both were, the density of the second dessert really pushed us over the limit for lunch.

Dinner before the Ellie Kemper talk was had at Mira Sushi & Izakaya in the Chelsea neighbourhood. The restaurant was busy, but not entirely full when we arrived. However, we did make a reservation (on OpenTable) as did others. The Yuzu Lychee Sangria was a little pricey, but they didn’t skimp on the alcohol, ensuring that it wasn’t overly sweet. For our meal, we both ordered the salmon sampler set. The fish was fresh and the rice was perfectly prepared for the sushi. The spicy salmon roll was so tasty, but didn’t quite have the heat that we expected. What really made this supper memorable was the dessert. We shared a matcha green tea brownie s’more and it was heavenly.

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DAY 5

Attractions: The Cloisters, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Rockefeller Center, Hand to God

The morning didn’t go as smoothly as we hoped. The train that Google told us to take ended up being only an express train on the Sunday, so we had to switch lines part way there. The last stop was further removed from The Cloisters and we stopped to ask a tailor for directions.

We eventually made it to Fort Tyron Park, which seemed to have been taken over by a medieval festival. Rather than join the crowd, we bypassed it and followed the signs to The Cloisters building, eventually finding the entrance.

The museum is filled with medieval European art, including the famous Unicorn Tapestries donated by John D. Rockefeller Jr. We almost missed seeing them as we took a staircase down to the lower level of the building and ended up looping past the room all together. But, I made sure that we went back into the galleries before we departed. The gardens are also beautiful and tranquil. I’m not sure how busy The Cloisters is on a regular day, but it was clear that the festival taking place outside brought in more than usual.

When we were done at The Cloisters, we caught a bus (the coldest bus we’ve ever been on) down to the Cooper Hewitt museum. With exhibits that cover historical and contemporary design, there were some unique pieces on display. What I loved the most about the museum is the digital pen that you’re given for use during your visit. If you see something you like, you can press the pen up to the symbol on the summary cards and it saves it to a URL that is specific to your entry ticket. It gives you a chance to look back at what you saw and takes less effort to document the things that capture your eye.

Prior to our evening performance of Hand to God, we made a quick trip to Rockefeller Center to see if we could obtain a Dwight bobblehead doll from the NBC Experience Store. To our dismay, it was already closed for the evening (silly, considering all the tourists milling about at 6 P.M. on the weekend).

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Since that was a bust, we started walking towards Broadway in search of food. As soon as we finished eating, we met up with the TodayTix staff member who hand delivered the tickets that we ordered using the app. Hand to God, showing at the Booth Theatre is a new American play about an awkward teenager whose sock puppet seems to come to life, bringing to light the many issues that surround him and those closest to him. It was sad, funny and, as our shows often leaned, inappropriate. Hand to God will remain in NYC until January when it moves to London.

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Nourishment: Carve Unique Sandwiches & Pizza, Shake Shack

Food was kind of low on our list this day, so we were starving by the time we got close to Times Square. We tided ourselves over with slices of pizza from Carve. The thin-crust spinach and ricotta pizza was delicious and it hit the spot before the play.

Spinach and ricotta pizza from Carve

Spinach and ricotta pizza from Carve

Another night, another stop at Shake Shack before bed. I stuck to my tried and true chicken dog, but added a draught root beer (to be honest, the drink was nothing special). My friend got the ShackMeister Dog™. Again, I was slightly envious that I went the healthier route once more.

DAY 6

Attractions: 9/11 Museum & Memorial, The High Line, Bowery Ballroom

The day started with a somber visit to the 9/11 Museum and Memorial. When I was in NYC less than two years ago, the museum wasn’t complete yet. Now that it’s open, I thought it was important to see it, and while I still believe that to be the case, it is a tough one to get through. The exhibits have been carefully curated and are thoughtful despite the subject matter. I cried a lot. The museum covers one of the worst days in recent history and as a remembrance of the event and the people who were lost, it feels like a necessary reminder.

What I love about NYC is that there’s always something “new” to do. For me, this was the High Line park. We managed to fit this in on our last full day in the city. Unbeknownst to me, the park (phase one) was established as far back as 2009, but until this year, I hadn’t heard of it. Created from a disused elevated railway, the tracks from 34th Street and 11th Avenue all the way down to Gansevoort Street have now been transformed into a gathering place for citizens and tourists to enjoy the beautiful views of Manhattan’s west side. We spent a couple of hours spotting the public art, large murals and graffiti tags along the route. We people watched, stopped to watch bees pollinate flowers and saw the sun setting over the water.

Our final evening was spent at the Bowery Ballroom where we saw Geographer and Stars perform. Both were excellent. I walked in as a fan of Stars and left loving Geographer just as much. The Bowery Presents runs Terminal 5 and the Bowery Ballroom, and it may come down to the performer each evening, but I have to say that the Bowery Ballroom felt like a better fit for us. The venue was much smaller (a capacity of less than 600 versus 3,000 at Terminal 5) with just two stories and better sight lines. The crowd was closer in age to us and everyone seemed to be respectful of personal space. My only suggestion is that they add a bit more seating to the venue.

Nourishment: Bouley, KULU Desserts

When we met with my cousin for lunch on the weekend, he mentioned dinner with his colleagues that same evening at a restaurant called Bouley. He was lamenting the fact that he was in store for a 6-course tasting menu just two hours after eating with us. We couldn’t help him, but we were certainly intrigued, so we looked into Bouley later that night. What we found was the lunch tasting menu, which is an absolute steal at $55 for 5 courses compared to the $185 for the 6-course dinner. Once we found that, we immediately decided to book a table.

We were forewarned that Bouley, located in Tribeca, was more upscale, so we knew we had to dress up a little. I still felt slightly out of place (I packed appropriately to fit in with the Manhattanites, but not so well that I looked like I belonged in a fancy schmancy restaurant like Bouley). However, all of the staff we came into contact with were extremely friendly and accommodating. They made us feel like we were their best patrons. The food wasn’t too shabby either. Every dish I had was fabulous. Even the ones that seemed simple to execute surpassed my expectations.

On the way out of Bouley, the hostess grabbed our jackets for us and then promptly handed us a couple of gift bags. I heard her say something about lemon tea. As it turns out, the bag had a pamphlet about chef David Bouley’s empire and an entire loaf of lemon tea cake. I carried that cake around for the rest of the day because I really appreciated the extra thought that Bouley put into their diner’s experience.

Our dinner that evening wasn’t exactly a real meal. I had purchased a Groupon ahead of the trip for a place called KULU Desserts. The reason why I really wanted to try this place is because they make Asian fusion desserts like ones that I ate in Hong Kong and Singapore from Honeymoon Dessert. Talk about dessert ruining your appetite for supper. $20 worth of food was more than enough to fill the two of us up. We shared the Mango Pomelo, Black Sesame Paste, Matcha Sawdust Pudding and a Papaya Smoothie. Everything was great, but I’d definitely go back for the Mango Pomelo bowl.

Our dessert dinner at KULU

Our dessert dinner at KULU

DAY 7

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Nourishment: Zengo

Day 7 of our trip was pretty short. We made a quick, last-minute jaunt to the Library Shop at the NYPL Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, so my friend and I could pick up some gifts before we left. A bit of time was also spent circling the neighbourhood around our hotel because the restaurant we had our eye on didn’t open until 11:30 A.M.

Zengo, a Latin-Asian fusion eatery from chef Richard Sandoval, sat on the corner across from our hotel, so it was the perfect place to relax over a nice meal before we began our journey home. For a little while, we were literally the only people in the restaurant, so the service was excellent. The place did fill up quickly at around noon though, so it’s good to know it’s well frequented.

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I thoroughly enjoyed my bento box, which consisted of the Angry Zengo Roll (spicy tuna), grilled skirt steak, wok vegetables, green papaya salad (not my favourite due to the addition of cilantro) and jasmine rice.

The deconstructed key lime pie was the perfect finish to lunch and, in a way, a good visual of what our vacation was. A mishmash of various flavours and textures that, when brought together, created magic.

West Coast Wonder: Vancouver, A Weekend Getaway

Moonlight from Iona Beach

Moonlight from Iona Beach

For as long as I can remember, Vancouver has been the quick and easy getaway for my family. It’s pretty much the fastest trip you can take from Edmonton to see the ocean and mountains all together while still enjoying the feel of a laid-back yet big city.

When I was younger, we would road trip all the way there and back; the numerous hours on the highway were an adventure to me. Now that I’m grown, I don’t think I can sit through such a long drive. What was once seen as fun has become daunting. That’s not to say that the scenery along the way won’t be beautiful and worth it, but it also depends on who’s willing to travel with you and vice versa. Pick the wrong person or group and count yourself in for two to three days of stress filled travel.

Thank goodness for airplanes! With the commute cut down immensely, Vancouver is actually the perfect weekend holiday for us landlocked Albertans. When I visit, I’m usually there for at least four days to a week, but back in April, I went to visit my friend and some of my relatives for a two day jaunt. Surprisingly, you can fit quite a lot into such a short time frame.

That particular weekend included a catch up with my aunt, uncle and cousin, birthday celebrations with my friend, strolls around Granville Island and Queen Elizabeth Park, shopping along Main Street (Front & Company and Barefoot Contessa) and Robson Street, and copious amounts of food from Burgoo, Lucky’s Doughnuts, Sala Thai, Joey Burrard and Kaya Malay Bistro.

Here are some photos from that trip!

Other recommendations from my past visits include: the historic fishing village of Steveston, a walk along the narrow jetty of land at Iona Beach Regional Park (particularly gorgeous at dusk) and the Seawall, the Vancouver Aquarium (those famous hand-holding sea otters!), the Vancouver Art Gallery, and running the 10 km Vancouver Sun Run with almost 60,000 other people (the year I ran, anyway).

Cooking at Home: Eggplant Stuffed Bell Pepper

Dinner is served!

Dinner is served!

Continuing with the cooking journey I started late last month, I had every intention of picking a new recipe to try sometime in March. But, I already had a fridge full of new groceries and I wasn’t too keen on having to pick up specific ingredients from the store, so I decided to forgo any form of instruction and I opted to do my own thing.

Really feeling the need to detox (I use this word lightly), my kitchen was stocked with eggplant, asparagus, zucchini, grape tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, tomatoes on the vine, avocados and salad mix. When it comes down to it, I’m all about keeping things simple, and when food is involved, I’ve learned that less is often better. As I wrapped my head around the items I had at my disposal, I realized that I should try making stuffed peppers. It’s something that always looks so tasty, healthy and relatively easy, so I figured it would be a piece of cake.

I decided that my basic ingredients would include one large bell pepper (I went with an orange one, so it was sweeter), eggplant, tomatoes on the vine, jalapeno cheese, Uncle Ben’s Bistro Express quinoa & brown rice with garlic flavour – I will often cut corners by going this route to save myself time – and a bit of garlic olive oil.

I’d say this took about 15 minutes to prep and about 25 to 30 minutes baking in the oven at 200 C (392 F). The cheese had melted through giving the stuffed pepper some kick, the eggplant had softened to a nice texture without becoming a squishy mess, the diced tomatoes added acidity, and the quinoa & brown rice with the garlic flavour made it a satisfyingly savoury dish.

Here’s the recipe:

Eggplant Stuffed Bell Pepper
1 Serving
15 min. prep
25 to 30 min. cooking time

1 large bell pepper (any colour)
1/3 of an eggplant
1 small tomato on the vine
1/2 package of Uncle Ben’s Bistro Express or bowl of rice
8 small slices of jalapeno cheese
1 tbsp Garlic olive oil

1) Cover a pan with tin foil and set aside.
2) Preheat your oven to 200 C.
3) Wash your pepper. Slice the top off and scoop out the seeds.
4) Take your eggplant and cut into half inch cubes.
5) Dice your tomato.
6) Warm the package of Uncle Ben’s in the microwave.
7) In a bowl, mix the cubes of eggplant and diced tomato together. Stir in a tablespoon of olive oil until the veggies are coated.
8) Add a portion of the rice to the bowl. Mix well.
9) Put your pepper on the pan and start filling it with layers of cheese and veggie/rice mixture. Alternate between the two until the pepper is full.
10) Once the oven is ready, place the pan on the middle rack.
11) Let cook for 25 to 30 minutes.

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This is an excellent recipe when you’re cooking for just yourself. Or, easily modify the portions and you’ll find that you can serve this to your guests next time they drop by for dinner. Enjoy!

Learning to Be a Better Home Cook

All of my ingredients for panna cotta gathered on the counter.

All of my ingredients for panna cotta gathered on the counter.

A couple of years ago, inspired by a friend who cooks and talks about food like he’s a chef, as well as by the meals I’ve eaten at restaurants in Edmonton and during my travels, and from watching the more popular than ever Food Network, I decided that I want to better my own culinary skills. Cooking is a science and an art. A beautifully presented dish can bring joy to the eye, but you also need to know what can work together to create something pleasing to the palate.

I had every intention at the beginning of 2014 to learn a new recipe once a week (or perhaps every two or three) – actually take the time to make a delicious and balanced meal. But, now, more than 12 months later, that hadn’t really happened. However, after having enjoyed a year’s worth of amazing lunches and dinners at eateries across the city, I’m now feeling a little more motivated to go ahead with my initial idea. I want to be able to make myself, my family and my friends dishes that are as good as those at all the fine establishments I’ve had the opportunity to dine at.

Up until now I’ve been winging it and, don’t get me wrong, I’m not terrible in the kitchen. Everything I’ve ever cooked has been edible and even quite tasty, but I’d like to add variety by building on what I already know because I want what I put into my mouth to be healthy and nothing other than delectable.

But, where do I begin? My biggest dilemma is that I never have a fully stocked pantry of food or ingredients just lying around waiting to be molded into some spectacular meal. So, I have to be really proactive about planning ahead. I also think I have to slowly work my way towards dishes that require a little more technique.

My plan is to scour the cookbooks I’ve amassed and the Internet for what, I hope, will be a yearlong experiment. If I am able to keep up with it, I’ll do my best to chronicle the more successful attempts here on my blog.

And, should set recipes not work for me, I’ve told my parents that they can go the way of Chopped (or Chopped Canada) and bring me random baskets of various ingredients and I’ll take up the challenge of preparing them a meal that is fit for consumption. So, wish me luck!

In the meantime, I have dipped my toes in by learning how to make one of my favourite desserts. In no way does this recipe really help me add to my repertoire of main dishes, yet it is a handy one to have in my back pocket should I need to whip a little treat up with short notice.

Panna cotta is a traditional Italian “cooked cream” dessert. I typically order it at restaurants when I want something that is subtly sweet and feels relatively light. The ingredients and cooking method have changed over time, but, regardless, it’s a classic that is surprisingly simple to make. It can also be garnished a number of ways to bring in different flavours. Making this, you’ll feel like a proper dessert chef in no time!

Vanilla Panna Cotta*
6 servings
10 min. prep
6 hr. cooking time

7 g (1 pkg) unflavoured gelatin
1 1/2 cup milk (2% suggested)
1 cup half and half cream
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 tbsp vanilla extract
Fruit or cinnamon to garnish

1) Grease six 1/2 cup ramekins and set aside.

2) Pour milk into a small saucepan. Sprinkle the entire package of gelatin into the milk. Let stand for 1 minute.

3) Heat the milk and gelatin mixture on medium, making sure to stir until the gelatin is completely dissolved.

4) Add the cream, sugar and vanilla extract to the pan. Keep on medium heat so it remains hot, but not boiling (be very careful about this!). Stir occasionally until smooth.

5) Pour the liquid into the six ramekins. Let cool, then cover and chill for at least 6 hours or overnight.

6) Once set, you can slide the panna cotta out of the ramekin and serve in a bowl or on a plate. You can also opt to serve it in the ramekin. Top with fruit, honey or a sprinkle of cinnamon.

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*Modified from Cook iPad app contributor Reizel Ayeras’s recipe.