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.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Butternut Tree

Crab Tart

A few years have passed since The Phork opened and closed its doors. The eatery sat on the raised main floor of the Ledgeview Business Centre on 97 Avenue and 110 Street. With panoramic views of Edmonton’s Legislature, the High Level Bridge, and the River Valley, it was a gorgeous location that deserved to be utilized. Yet, to my knowledge, it sat empty until now.

The beginning of September marked the launch of The Butternut Tree and this venue’s chance at a second life. Although it had already been in business for a few weeks, the media event was only held this past Wednesday, and luckily, my boyfriend and I were invited as guests. After weeks of salivating over posts of their food on social media, I was extremely excited to acquaint myself with St. Albert-born Chef-Owner Scott Downey’s menu firsthand.

Arriving at the building, we managed to snag the very last spot in their underground parking lot; however, there is also free parking available at an adjacent Impark lot as well as on the street after 6:00 pm.

Making our way up to the lobby, the entrance to the restaurant is marked by simple signage over a glass door. As soon as the threshold is crossed, there’s a host to greet patrons and a view of a handful of the windows that overlook Constable Ezio Faraone Park. As we were led through to our table, I observed the kitchen with its floor-to-ceiling glass walls that give diners a look behind the curtain. There are also only 58 seats in a 2,500 square foot dining room (including an eating area for private parties with its own separate entrance), providing everyone — servers and guests — ample space to breathe and move.

The decor is somewhat sparse. Save for a painting hanging behind the bar at the far end of the room, the rest of the walls were pretty bare. But, when there is such picturesque scenery outside, there isn’t really a need to dot the place with much else. The overall design was a mix of modern and rustic. Grey-brown wide plank floors, accent wood beams, vintage pendant lights, recessed lighting, black wood tables and matching vintage chairs set the mood. It felt somewhat homey while simultaneously coming across as an elevated ambiance. As the sun set, the room dimmed and candlelight took over; it became intimate and romantic despite the echoing din from those around us.

On this occasion, we were given the choice of ordering à la carte or going with their tasting menu. The two of us opted to do the latter. Between the meat and vegetarian versions, many of the individual dishes were covered, albeit in smaller sizes to take into account the multiple courses. Therefore, we had the opportunity to try seven of the twelve plates off of the menu, along with a couple of creations only to be found in the table d’hôte.

To drink, my boyfriend decided to try both of the beers — Farmer’s Daughter Pale Ale and Shotgun Wedding Brown Ale (my personal preference) — from Cochrane’s Half Hitch Brewing Company. I, on the other hand, chose to go with their Sumacade cocktail: sumac spice, lemon verbena, dandelion honey, soda, and Eau Claire Three Point Vodka. This one actually surprised me as the dandelion is what I picked up on the most; it made for a very botanic and floral Kool-Aid flavoured drink.

The pretty and petite amuse bouches.

Our meal then began with a palate prepping amuse bouche each: cured halibut for him and baby corn for me. Off the bat, I noticed how delicately they had been prepared and plated on their custom-made ceramics. They were almost too pretty to eat. After admiring them, we sampled the food. Since the halibut was cured, it was cooked, but it retained that raw fish texture. Paired with tart apple and edible flowers, it was a balance of herbaceousness and zest. The baby corn was tender while still remaining firm. It was covered in a thin layer of sauce and then sprinkled with dried and crushed flowers and salt. It was the perfect way to whet our appetite.

The introductory course on the meat side was the Crab Tart whereby a rye crust was filled with crab in smoked crème fraîche and topped with unripe crab apple and herbs. It was way lighter than I expected. The rye shell was thin enough to imbue a deep, slightly sour flavour without overpowering the taste of the crab and the tart’s decorations. On the vegetarian side, dinner started with a dish of Kohlrabi. The bulbous stem was served as raw shavings in the salad, similar in flavour and texture to radishes and turnips. Just a tad crunchy and spicy as it married itself with the caraway, golden flax, and juniper.

Grilled Bannock

Both of us received the same second course of Grilled Bannock. A quick flat bread traditionally made by First Nations people, The Butternut Tree’s take reminded me of an open-faced English muffin piled high with wild mushrooms, berries, winged kelp, and pumpkin seed. It was probably one of my top dishes of the night even though I found the bannock to be overly charred. Initially, the burnt flavour was overwhelming; however, a couple more bites in and I saw how this seemingly simple plate was layered in a complex way to become earthy, sweet and nutty.

Leaning towards the lighter side of what I considered to be our first entrées were the Miss Tatum Rockfish for my boyfriend and the Broccoli for me. The filet of rockfish was thick as it laid on a bed of Saskatchewan wild rice, beans, and herbs. The finishing touch was a separate cup of kelp broth poured over the bowl before our very eyes. By adding the broth just prior to eating, the kitchen avoided presenting a bowl of wilted greens and flowers. I do wish that the fish had been a bit more supple. Otherwise, it worked well with the produce. As I’m not one to pass up some good pork belly, I really would have liked to experience the Broccoli as listed under the appetizers on their à la carte menu. Alas, the vegetarian rendition of the recipe obviously did away with it. Funnily enough, they kept the duck egg though, and I’m glad they did. The soft boiled egg is the star of the dish. Covered in leek ash, it has a gritty looking texture to it. Yet, the flesh gives way easily to reveal one of the most beautiful runny yolks I’ve ever seen. Combined with pickled garlic scapes (the flower stalks of the garlic bulb) and cereal grains, this was likely my favourite offering of the evening.

Our main dishes took a little longer to prepare. But, eventually, we were rewarded with my dish of Prairie Gardens Squash and his Bentley Bison Duo. I found that as an entrée, the squash wasn’t quite filling enough. I did like seeing the different ways in which the gourds were prepared as well as the use of the squash blossom (a soft, delicate, edible flower that grows from summer and winter squashes). The searing of the wilted spinach was another pleasant flavour profile. When I do go back to The Butternut Tree, I’d certainly be inclined to order the bison duo again. Both cuts of meat were succulent and juicy. Served with lentils, carrot, cauliflower, Saskatoon berry jus and some magical purée, it was heaven on a plate for me.

Last, but never least, was dessert. My boyfriend’s tasting menu finished with the Cherry ice cream with bee pollen atop rolled rye grains. We enjoyed the ice cream, but we both agreed that the rye was way too crunchy and strong in flavour. The Plum: duo of plum fruit with milk ice cream fared much better. Compatibly integrated with an oat crumble and a marshmallowy, sticky honey meringue, this was a sweet ending to die for. As an extra, we gluttonously added on the Ployes Cake from their regular dessert menu. I had seen a photograph of it on their Instagram account, and I didn’t want to leave without trying it. Looking like a stack of pancakes, the dense cake’s taste emanated from the use of maple butter. On its own, it was seemingly bland. The whipped cream, flakes of Alberta rose, nuts and berries helped to give it some depth, but I still wasn’t satisfied. On closer inspection, I think the issue stemmed from the kitchen missing one of the main components: black currant jam. The jam was supposed to be sandwiched between each layer of the cake, and it was clear that it hadn’t been incorporated. I have no doubt that had the jam made an appearance, this would have been an excellent choice.

Regardless of the few minor missteps we came across, this was a top notch meal that would be perfect for a special occasion. Chef Downey has taken what he’s learned from his time working with world-renowned Michelin-starred restaurants Daniel and Noma and applied those teachings to his own take on Canadian cuisine. Along with a phenomenal team, The Butternut Tree’s kitchen has shown us just how talented they truly are when showcasing their creations. I also have to give a huge shout out to the rest of the staff who kept the service running smoothly, and who also spend an inordinate amount of time polishing the silverware as every course comes with a new set of utensils.

The late-summer opening of The Butternut Tree brings another welcome addition to the city’s burgeoning food scene. With a focus on global flavours made using unique ingredients that hail from our very own lands, this new restaurant exhibits a refined menu for those willing to go on a spectacular culinary adventure.

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.

DSCF3280

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.