Edmonton Restaurant Review: Characters Fine Dining

A shot with the kitchen in the background.

My friend and I both love food and, every so often, we’ll gratify ourselves with a tasting menu. For the past several months, I’ve been talking about visiting Characters Fine Dining for that reason. After over 18 years in business, chef Shonn Oborowsky, who opened the restaurant when he was just 26 years of age, has truly refined his offerings. The listing of dishes found online sounded too good to pass up, and at $95 before tax and tip for seven full courses, it’s actually quite fairly priced.

So, the two of us made it our mission to visit on a miserably cold and snowy Friday night at the beginning of February. We arrived at the building on 102 Avenue and 105 Street right ahead of our 5:00 pm reservation. The host greeted us immediately as we walked through the doors and offered to take our coats. We were then seated at a table for two next to the central fireplace and in direct view of the open kitchen. Our chairs felt quite regal with their deep, high backs. As I eyed the space, I noticed how classical and rustic it looked with lots of tuscan colours, brick walls, and wooden beams. By the same token, it also had a slightly industrial feel with exposed piping and ventilation, along with metal accents.

Throughout the almost four hours we were there, only a few people dropped in for drinks and maybe a handful of other groups came in later for dinner. We were the first table dining that evening though, so the service we received was attentive. Our server allowed us a few minutes to go through the menu and available beverages. I opted to stick with water while my friend went with a Broken Negroni ($14). As we had our minds set on the tasting menu we let her know at the same time.

Characters drink menu with a glass of their Broken Negroni.

The Broken Negroni was prepared quickly and my friend was pleased with it. This cocktail was made with sweet vermouth, Campari, orange bitters and prosecco. I had a sip and found the citrus to be enjoyable and it helped to cut through the bitterness of the alcohol.

We were then given our amuse-bouche. This is a bite that is additional to the expected courses, often setting the tone for the meal. Now, this is the only thing I really had a problem with during our entire experience at Characters. When we had placed our order for supper, my friend checked with the server to ensure that her shellfish allergy wouldn’t be an issue. The server said she would let the kitchen know. Typically, the amuse-bouche served is their baby octopus. As it turns out, it is made using shellfish, so the kitchen decided to come up with something different. However, they didn’t alter the menu only for my friend, they changed it for both of us. I do understand that it simplifies things for the chefs to make the same dish for both people and that it reduces the risk of cross contamination to avoid cooking the octopus for me, but I suppose I would have appreciated them asking what I would have preferred since I didn’t have the same food restrictions.

Our alternative amuse-bouche.

In any case, the octopus was exchanged for a wooden slab topped with a large slice of cured ibérico ham, pickled cucumber and artichoke, cantaloupe, and pine nuts. Unlike the typical one-bite amuse-bouche, this one required several bites to finish and was somewhat awkward to cut on the high perch as the nuts kept falling off onto the table. I also found it funny that with a single table to cook for, the kitchen made a mistake by forgetting to plate my artichoke. I noticed it wasn’t there as the difference between my friend’s block and mine was glaring, but I wasn’t planning to bring it up. In the end, the chefs realized on their own and the server brought out the missing ingredient right before I was about to eat. Still, the combination of flavours was excellent. The salty, fatty meat paired with the sweet melon perfectly and the tartness of the pickled veggies added an extra element of surprise.

Our first course of Grilled & Smoked Sardine had the best presentation of all the dishes we ate that night. The fish was plated under a bell jar filled with smoke that slowly dissipated once lifted. Admittedly, I’m not a fan of sardine. I do like the stronger taste of the marinated fish, and the meat is often quite supple, but I do not handle bones well. It was easy enough to pull out the larger backbone; yet, the tiny, thinner bones were much more difficult to deal with. Although they are edible, I find it unpleasant to eat them, especially when and if one pricks my throat. Therefore, this was a slow course to get through as both my friend and I were careful to pick out as many bones as possible and to set them aside. Otherwise, this was pretty delectable with the smoked paprika lemon mayo, charred tomato, arugula, and the recurring artichoke.

Following the sardine, we continued with a seafood theme. This second course consisted of a slate slab laid with a small salad of baby beets, a streak of butter, a crab claw-shaped pretzel, and two rolls of horseradish crusted Beet Cured Salmon. Because of the beets, the salmon had this incredibly deep, translucent red colour and a sweetness that lingered with the smokiness. Fresh beets on the side really anchored the plate and alleviated any dry mouth due to the saltiness and starchiness of the pretzel.

Course three was another item from their appetizer menu. The Carrot Risotto was made with a carrot beurre blanc. It ended up with a super creamy texture where the carrot wasn’t really discernible until bites of the peeled or roasted carrot were had.

Beef Tartar is one of my favourite things, so our fourth course did not disappoint. I also liked that this was, again, presented differently. A handmade wooden bowl housed the round of beef tartar that was topped with an egg yolk, balsamic onions and arugula. Inside the bowl was also a long copper spoon for scooping. On the side, we were given a wooden board of grilled black bread. The bread was a warm, buttery and soft base for dollops of the melt-in-your-mouth tartar. I would have gladly had another portion.

At this point, it was sinking in that there were still three more courses to go. I felt fine and I knew I could power through, but my friend was starting to wane. She did make it through the next course of Cider Glazed Pork Belly though. Underneath the meat was braised red cabbage. On top was a helping of julienned carrots and green apple. The slab of pork belly was sizeable and so delicious as the meat was juicy on the inside yet the cider glaze and the fatty layers had rendered while cooking into this gloriously crisp and caramelized outside. This is a star and absolutely a steal at $15 for the solo appetizer on their regular menu.

The entrée came from the restaurant’s list of main courses. Regularly, the Venison Wellington costs just under $50, so the value of their tasting option becomes very apparent here. Plated with asparagus and raspberries as well as a generous amount of sauce and Miataké mushrooms, this pastry crusted venison was a rich dish. Arguably, it was worth every calorie. Even if I was full, I wouldn’t have stopped myself (my friend only managed one mouthful and then had the rest packed to go). The meat was the focus and it was ridiculously succulent. In fact, it was so tender that I’m certain the steak knives provided weren’t needed. A butter knife would have sufficed.

Dessert was our seventh and final course of the evening. Named The Honey Pot, this was a duo of a ceramic cup filled with a crème brûlée-like custard decorated with a piece of honeycomb imprinted bee pollen meringue and a square of Georgian honey cake with a piece of sponge toffee atop it. I couldn’t decide which component was my favourite — the meringue with the chocolate nibs, the bubbly sponge toffee, the dense cake with fig purée, or the thick yet smooth custard — so I alternated bites between them all while dipping my spoon into the bee-shaped sprinkling of icing sugar for added sweetness.

Considering that Characters is about to close in on twenty years of business in Edmonton and that the eatery serves impeccable dishes in a wonderful atmosphere, my friend and I were astonished to see that it was so quiet there on a Friday night. It’s a shame that it wasn’t busier. As this was my first time there, I’m hoping that this is not usual for them. The setting is too beautiful and the food is too good for this place to sit so empty. I mean, the restaurant essentially takes up the entire main floor (and basement?) of the building, so they have plenty of room and tables for many to enjoy.

Sure, the price point is a tad higher than other nearby venues, so it won’t become the norm to pop in every week or every month. Nevertheless, consider a visit to Characters Fine Dining to be an event or a treat. Once I took into account the amount of food we received and the number of hours we were there, it all made sense. Do yourself a favour and give in to the indulgence of a meal there.

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Edmonton Restaurant Review: Famoso (Magrath)

Korean BBQ Chicken Pizza

Famoso‘s original Jasper Avenue location was one of the first handful of local restaurant reviews I wrote on this blog. I’ve been a loyal customer over the years, but with the introduction of delivery service through SkipTheDishes, I started having the food dropped off at my condo and I stopped going into any of the physical locations.

Fast forward to January. I had a Groupon on hand for the Magrath Heights Famoso at Rabbit Hill Road and 23 Avenue. My fiancé and I popped in for an early supper on a Sunday afternoon. When we arrived, the server indicated that we could sit wherever we liked. We ended up grabbing a cozy booth and she dropped the menus off.

I took a look at the space and thought I’d make note of the table number, so I’d know what to tell them at the till during our order placement. As it turns out, the number was missing. I asked the server if the restaurant was now full-service and she confirmed what I thought. The manager mentioned that they switched to that template about a year and a half ago. This is actually preferable because it never really made sense to me to have customers get up from their seats. In the long run, they were still paying for staff to work the restaurant during the remainder of the meal and I don’t think it really saved anyone much time.

On this occasion, we opted to get two 12″ pizzas: the white Cavoletti ($17.35) and the seasonal Korean BBQ Beef ($18.35).

Cavoletti Pizza

The Cavoletti is my all-time favourite pie at Famoso and, ever since I introduced it to my fiancé, it has become his as well. The combination of the soft, chewy, slightly charred dough topped with prosciutto crisps, oven-roasted Brussels sprouts, Gorgonzola cheese, dates, walnuts, and honey is always satisfying with its balance of saltiness and sweetness. I call it a game changer.

Korean BBQ Pizza

Our second choice of the Korean BBQ Beef was actually surprisingly good. There was a generous amount of oven-roasted hand-pulled beef covered in house-made Korean BBQ and hoisin sauce. It was sweeter than expected. Yet, the duo of a mild fior di latte and a stronger cheddar cheese, along with chopped green onions, helped to tone that down.

This was a really enjoyable dinner that was speedily prepared (we were in and out within an hour) and provided leftovers for lunch the next day. We even received a couple of vouchers to come back for half off our bills during their Gratitude Week that ran from January 21 to 25, and we took them up on the offer twice.

As usual, the Cavoletti pizza was a staple. However, we also decided to try some different items: a New World Sweet BBQ Chicken pizza, a half order of the Prosciutto Wrapped Mozza Balls ($11.95) and the Pistachio Pesto Primavera pasta ($16.35) with added Chicken ($3.35).

Sweet BBQ Chicken Pizza

Admittedly, the Sweet BBQ Chicken pizza was disappointing. We did alter the recipe by asking them to omit the cilantro as neither of us likes the taste of the herb. That left roasted chicken with honey smoked BBQ sauce, fior di latte, smoked mozzarella, tomatoes, and onions. I don’t think there was enough of the sauce or that the mozzarella tasted like it was smoked at all. If it’s smoked properly, that scent comes off the plate immediately and the flavour packs a punch, but it was missing completely. Maybe in place of cilantro, some spinach would have been good to bring in a little bitterness. That, or a more intense cheese such as feta.

Prosciutto Wrapped Mozza Balls

Regarding the Prosciutto Wrapped Mozza Balls, these were decent. Their Campania tomato sauce is so fresh and tasty. I love that they drown the mozza balls in the stuff. It’s a wonderful accompaniment to the garlic flatbread. Our only issue with the dish was that it wasn’t warm. While we could tell the cheese had melted as it was still soft in the middle, it wasn’t all that gooey and it had cooled considerably by the time it made it to us.

Pistachio Pesto Primavera Pasta

I was quite impressed with the Pistachio Pesto Primavera pasta. Although I would have liked to have seen more of the linguini pasta on the plate, they certainly did not skimp on the roasted zucchini and mushrooms, green peas, sun-dried tomatoes, and chicken. The house-made pistachio pesto cream sauce was lighter than what might be found at other places, but there was enough to ensure that everything was evenly coated. We didn’t think we’d manage to finish our bowl of pasta and whole pizza that night. Yet, both items were so good that we polished it all off.

It seems that the best time to visit is in the middle of the afternoon on weekends though. We never had a problem finding a table at those times and the service was always more attentive. On our last visit, we went after work on a Tuesday night and the location was packed with people, mostly families, out for a meal. Thankfully, we didn’t have to wait as we managed to grab the only available table for two. Despite that, the service was still pretty quick and friendly.

The Famoso chain of restaurants is one that I’ll keep recommending to people because there’s a comfortable consistency. Plus, it’s a local success story and I think that patrons appreciate that aspect of the business.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Seasons Hot Pot

My hot pot spread at Seasons.

I’m not one to have hot pot that often. For some reason, it’s just never at the top of my list when it comes to food. Yet, I’d been craving it for a while. Whenever I had the chance, I’d snap up Groupon deals. Unfortunately, before I had the opportunity to use it, the first one I bought for Chili Hot Pot fell through as it was cancelled by the business. So, when I saw that Seasons Hot Pot was offering a deal, I couldn’t pass it up.

Seasons Hot Pot is located at 109 Street and 23 Avenue just to the east of Century Park transit station. We dropped in on a Saturday afternoon for a family lunch. I had phoned the day before to make a reservation, but I had a feeling they didn’t actually make a note of it because the woman I spoke with forgot to even ask for my name. I had to offer it to her myself. My parents arrived ahead of us and let them know I had booked a table. It seems that my suspicions were correct because my mom said they were caught off guard. Still, it wasn’t crazy busy at 1:00 pm (the place filled up as we dined), and they got a spot right away.

Aside from the forgotten reservation, the service was pretty decent. While we were making our choices, both of the servers came by to see if we had any questions. They were more than willing to explain anything. Plus, when I inquired about the sweet potato noodles to make sure I was ordering what I thought I was, the one staff member even went to the kitchen to grab a strand to show me. I appreciated that.

At Seasons Hot Pot, their menu has two options: combos or create your own. Prices for the combos vary ($16 to $26) depending on the amount and type of meat selected. However, the cost includes the soup, which happens to be free during lunch hours, an assorted platter, and a bowl of noodles. The create your own menu stipulates a minimum spend of $15.95 with individual items ranging from $2 to $5 each.

My parents both decided to go with the Beef & Lamb combos, one with the plain chicken broth and the other going with the satay broth. My fiancé and I, on the other hand, chose to personalize our meals. He took on the heat with the spicy broth. I hoped to jazz things up with the curry soup. The two of us each ordered three plates of meat and three additional sides as well as some noodles.

Some of the sauces and condiments available.

First off, I will quickly say that the all of the soups, except for the spicy broth, were pretty bland. There was a hint of flavour to them, but nothing that was really able to saturate any of the ingredients. I think that’s why they offer so many different sauces and condiments. We also had to wave someone down to have extra soup added to our pots when they got low, and I also question whether or not it was actually soup that they poured in or if it was just plain water.

In any case, the important part was that I had a boiling pot of liquid to cook my food in, and there was a ton of food! If we’re talking about value for the money, I’d definitely recommend that visitors create their own hot pot meal. The combos were alright because there was a good mix of stuff, but for the price, there really wasn’t that much meat. The beef and lamb combos that my mom and dad ate had a total of about a dozen slices of meat per plate. Whereas I ordered the sliced beef, sliced lamb and sirloin beef. All in, I was looking at around double the portion of meat for approximately the same cost. In fact, after consuming my tofu puffs, pork dumplings, enoki mushrooms and my sweet potato noodles, I had to start sharing some of my lamb and beef with everyone else.

I think every kind of sauce or condiment one would want is here.

Since we had never been to Seasons Hot Pot before, I count this visit as a learning experience. If we go back, I know to: stay away from the marinated chicken (it’s tender, but in a too smooth way), avoid broccoli when having spicy broth because all of the tiny chili peppers get stuck in the florets, choose sirloin beef over sliced beef, mix sauces — satay, peanut and sesame — for amazing combinations, and order only what I truly like so nothing is wasted.

Was this the best hot pot I’ve had in Edmonton? No. It’s not. Some may also argue that they don’t have an all-you-can-eat menu like other hot pot places. Yet, how much can one really consume anyway? For about $20 per person, including tax and tip, all four of us left with full bellies. Neither my fiancé nor I ate dinner that evening. We didn’t have room for it. Therefore, for an affordable and more than passable lunchtime meal, check out Seasons Hot Pot. For those who live in the far southwest side of the city, it’s probably the closest restaurant of its kind to you, too.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Villa Bistro

Braised Short Rib

To my surprise, this summer, I was scrolling through my OpenTable app when I came across a new restaurant called Villa Bistro. It was the first I’d heard of it, so I decided to Google the business. As it turns out, the trusty Free Press Bistro on 100 Avenue and 104 Street had been sold and renamed. Villa Bistro’s goal is to serve high-end comfort food, which, in a city that seems to be in the throws of winter for half the year, seems appropriate.

I kept the new eatery in mind for the past few months, and I finally visited with a friend at the end of November after we completed a big Christmas shopping spree at City Centre. We happened to be hanging out downtown on an Oilers game night, so depending on where we parked, we could have ended up paying for it. However, we lucked out by driving an extra block further where we found a spot on 99 Avenue. The payment machine didn’t indicate that it cost anything after 6:00pm. Yet, just in case, we phoned 311 to double check and they confirmed that the zone we were in fell outside of the event area. Bonus! Otherwise, if money isn’t a concern, there is parking in front of the establishment as well as an Impark lot across the street, too.

When we entered Villa Bistro, it was fairly quiet. I’d say there were, at best, a handful of other tables and a couple of bar stools occupied. I noticed the space had been freshened up with brighter walls, new modern floral art (i.e. the ubiquitous succulent), as well as updated tables and chairs. It looked lovely. The host greeted us from behind the counter and told us we could take any available table. We opted for one tucked into a nook by the windows. Once we settled in, the server brought the menus over along with glasses of water.

Veggie Panini with Fries

The food selection has an Italian leaning with entrees that include panini sandwiches or pasta bowls and appetizers of meatballs, charcuterie, and caprese skewers. My friend ended up ordering the Veggie Panini ($15). I indulged by going with the Braised Short Rib ($24). The two of us also shared an order of the Baked Brie ($15).

As we waited for the kitchen to prepare our meal, it seemed to be getting cooler inside the restaurant. I assumed it was because we were next to a window and didn’t think too much of it at first. But, right before our dishes arrived, my friend stepped out into the building’s adjoining hallway to use the bathroom and, when she returned, she confirmed that the temperature had most definitely dropped. The server eventually let us know that what we were experiencing wasn’t the norm. Apparently, the whole building was hit with a heating problem and someone was being called in to fix it as soon as possible.

Despite the cold, we powered through our dinner like the true Canadians we are. My friend was really hoping that her Veggie Panini would be reminiscent of the vegetarian toasties she had when she visited Australia. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. The sandwich, consisting of goat cheese, grilled zucchini, mushrooms and red peppers in a balsamic glaze was still tasty. Her one recommendation to Villa Bistro though? The ciabatta bread was barely toasted, if at all. Paninis are supposed to be heated and pressed and this one didn’t seem to fit that description. Coming with the sandwich was a large side of fries. They looked to be freshly made and lightly seasoned.

Baked Brie

We quite enjoyed the Baked Brie. Honestly, it’s kind of a hard appetizer to screw up. This one was presented with a whole mini round of brie that was topped with fruit compote (the menu said it was blueberry, but the colour and flavour made me think it was more akin to raspberry). There were six slices of focaccia crostini to go with it. When we cut into the cheese, it was warm and nicely melted with the center oozing a little. The sweet compote paired perfectly with the rich, creamy, nutty brie.

I will give myself a pat on the back for choosing the Braised Short Rib because I think it was worth every penny. The meat was braised in-house until it was tender enough to be pulled apart with just a fork. There was only a minuscule amount of fat throughout the cut, so I was able to eat every bite of the short rib. It was also marinated very well with the flavour completely saturating the meat. Since it was so savoury, the combination of the short rib with a large helping of sweet potato puree was kind of ingenious, providing that important balance. The addition of fried parmesan Brussels sprouts that were charred and crisp on the outside just made the whole thing even better (and provided me with some actual veggies).

Braised Short Rib

By the time we polished off our plates, Villa Bistro had become a literal ice box. Our server was tucked behind the bar with a heater while she wore her parka, and my friend had also pulled on her coat. Otherwise, there was a slight chance we would have hung out a bit longer and had dessert. In those circumstances, however, we couldn’t bring ourselves to stay. We grabbed our bills to pay and then head back out into the winter evening.

I’ll admit that the staff could have offered to compensate us for the inconvenience of eating in freezing conditions. Even though I know what happened wasn’t their fault, it’s still good business practice to acknowledge when something is wrong and to do whatever possible to rectify the situation. The host/server was super friendly and, despite the issue, she did her job pretty well. But, there wasn’t any discount on the bill or anything, which I think another restaurant would have considered. I believe the least they could have done was to offer each of us a hot beverage to keep us cozy as we ate.

Regardless, I hope that Villa Bistro’s building has since fixed the problem and that every visit hereafter will be much more comfortable. While the establishment is still coming into its own and there’s always room for improvement, they’re on the right track. With good service, a fantastic location and delicious food, they can expect to grow a wealth of regular customers.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Little India Cuisine

Our table covered with traditional Indian cuisine.

Groupon struck again with a lunch voucher for Little India Cuisine (9250 34 Avenue). Knowing that it was valid towards the buffet ($14.99), which is available daily, I couldn’t pass it up.

My boyfriend and I decided to do a walk-in on a Sunday afternoon. When we stepped through the doors, on the right hand side, I noticed the decor with draped fabrics, hand-carved wooden doors, lantern lights hanging from the ceiling and traditional paintings. It looked stylish and classy from afar; it was a little run-down on closer inspection. On the left hand side was the payment counter and their sweets shop.

We didn’t have to wait for a table as they were able to seat us immediately. However, I did not appreciate where we were placed. We were taken to the back room where the bar is situated. They had modified the tables in that area to accommodate a large party of people who basically took it over and didn’t seem to understand the concept of personal space. It felt like I was sitting in a cafeteria, not a relaxing restaurant. I do realize that probably isn’t the norm there, but it really dampened my experience on this occasion. Had we managed to get a table out front instead, I think it would have been much quieter and more comfortable.

That aside, we helped ourselves to the buffet and it was superb. There was a decent amount of variety, including a salad bar, soups, rices, appetizers, mains, and a few desserts. I only managed to consume one large plate of food (I can’t eat as much as I used to) that was comprised of Aloo Gobi, Mutter Paneer, Lamb Curry, Tandoori Chicken, Butter Chicken, and Saffron Rice.

Papri Chaat and my plate from the lunch buffet.

Everything was marinated well with the flavours saturating and soaking into the veggies and meats. The Tandoori Chicken was actually succulent compared to some I’ve had at other places where it often ends up dry, especially when it can be sitting out for a long period. I love that they serve lamb as part of their lunch buffet because a lot of other Indian restaurants tend to save it for the dinner lineup. I managed to scoop up a few tender pieces of the lamb. It was all meat with very little fat or tendon to be found (although, the bowl had a lot of bones left behind). My absolute favourite thing at any Indian eatery is butter chicken, mainly for the sauce. This was a creamy, slightly spicy and incredibly tasty rendition. In fact, a small pot of the sauce was the only thing I went back to get a second helping of. I dipped our fresh naan bread into that dish and it was worth each and every additional calorie.

I was also surprised to find a plate of Papri Chaat sitting at our table when we first returned from gathering our food at the buffet. I can’t ever recall eating it anywhere else, so it was new to me. The recipe consists of crispy chips, potatoes, chickpeas, and yogurt chutney. Before we were able to ask one of the servers what it was, I took a chance and had a few bites. It was delicious! There are a lot of different textures and I liked the cooling sensation of the yogurt on the palate. Personally, I like it way more than the Papadam that is often offered as a starter.

Mango Custard

Usually, I skip dessert at Indian buffets. After all, I’ve never been a fan of Gulabjuman (milk balls in hot sweet syrup) as they’re way too sugary. Yet, this time, they presented a mango custard and I had to give it a try. It was, admittedly, a slight disappointment. The only reason I say that is due to the number of pieces of custard skin that ended up in my bowl. Those had a sort of unpleasant mouthfeel, like crumbly gelatin. I picked my way around them and ate the smoother custard on its own, and that turned out to be pretty good. Honestly, it could almost pass as a replacement for those wonderful lassi drinks.

When we were finished, we went up to the till to pay our bill. It took forever for the woman to assist us. She seemed more preoccupied with answering the phone than anything. But, her main issue was that she didn’t know where we were sitting and she was apparently trying to get the attention of the servers to ask them before she finally just inquired with us. The staff definitely came across as a bit disorganized. Otherwise, the service was alright while we were dining.

This visit left me with mixed feelings about Little India Cuisine. To go out for a meal is a treat (even if it’s something I do more than the average person). As a customer, I’m spending my hard-earned money by choosing to eat at your establishment. Therefore, it’s not just about filling my body with food. I want to be able to have an enjoyable lunch with my significant other without having some child run into our table, knocking over our stuff. I want to be able to pay my bill in a timely manner. I just want it to be a nice escape from my typical day. In this case, the ambience didn’t do the kitchen’s work any justice, and I couldn’t wait to leave.

Still, the meal was affordable and executed well enough that I’d be willing to give Little India Cuisine another shot. Hopefully what we went through that day was a one off and it’ll be better next time.