Edmonton Bakery Review: Doughnut Party

The devil’s in the details.

I’ll admit it. I’ve been overly obsessed with doughnuts ever since I tried my first Lucky’s doughnut in Vancouver a couple of years ago. I’m going to chalk it up to their fillings. They go beyond the glaze and toppings. To me, those are the epitome of the sweet treat.

Within the past year, I’ve sought the dessert out across the globe – checking out the Donut Mill in Red Deer, PinkBox in Las Vegas, several independent shops in Chicago and, most recently, Good Town in Tokyo – yet none of them quite compare. Japan’s offering is the one that came closest to satisfying my cravings. Nonetheless, there wasn’t anywhere local to fill that void.

Fast forward a few months from my autumn trip to Asia and word started getting out that there was a new sheriff in town. Narcity published a quick article about a shop that was opening in Edmonton that was supposedly killing it on social media. Perfectly filtered picture posts had spread of these gorgeous, bright pink boxes filled with doughnuts along with the bakery’s adorable kawaii inspired logo depicting a welcoming doughnut shaped character.

The shop’s logo is kawaii (Japanese for “cute”) inspired.

The store’s name is Doughnut Party and it’s located at 109 Avenue and 119 Street in an up-and-coming refurbished building that houses new brunch time favourite Café Linnea. Their hours are not ideal for those who do not work or live nearby. Open five days during the week from Tuesday to Saturday, my only option was to visit on a Saturday morning.

It’s really important to go early to ensure they don’t run out of product before arrival. Despite listing their closing time as 1:30pm on weekdays and 2:00pm on Saturday, once they’re sold out for the day (at what point do they decide it’s best to shut it down and stop producing treats?), they will close without warning. I haven’t seen any notices (or many responses to questions for that matter) on their Instagram or Facebook pages to let customers know. In fact, yesterday was the business’s most recent public share on Facebook since February 25, which happens to be the day I went to get my batch. Both messages were simply to inform followers that they had opened.

Part of the line that snaked through the shop.

My boyfriend and I arrived to Doughnut Party just after ten o’clock on the morning we visited. To avoid the chilly weather, patrons had created a line that snaked all the way through the interior of the shop. Everyone was incredibly patient and happy to direct those who had just walked in towards the proper spot in the queue. As I waited, I snapped photos of the crowd and I watched as the doughnuts at the counter dwindled down and trays were removed and replaced. I noticed that the flavours seemed to rotate and ones that I hoped would be brought back out were, sadly, missing in action.

From my observations, on a busy day, the shop could do with an extra staff member or two to help box orders a little faster and to manage the payments. It may also be beneficial to add a second till at some point, and they should ensure that there’s sufficient small change available. Because they only take cash or debit, I paid for my order with a $20 bill. All they had was quarters for change. It’s not a huge deal, but for someone like me who prefers to keep my purse light, I wasn’t expecting that. Plus, it was still rather early in the day, meaning it’s likely a lot more people would be paying with cash later on.

Their menu is posted on the wall. Cash & debit only. Friendly staff!

Putting those minor issues aside, after approximately thirty minutes, I made it to the front of the line. Basically, it’s luck of the draw as to what will be available when it’s time to order. In my case, all of the s’more and banana bread doughnuts were gone when I finally had my chance to pick. On the plus side, there were six different choices, so I decided to try one of each. The half dozen cost me $16, working out to about $2.70 per serving. Single doughnuts are $3.

We took the box home and split them throughout the day. The base of the majority of their doughnuts is a yeast ring with the exception of the fritter, which I’m assuming is the same dough recipe, merely a different shape. Overall, the structure and feel of their dessert is fantastic. According to a note the owners left on Instagram, the master recipe is vegan (although, the toppings are not guaranteed to be free from animal products). Once fried, the dough puffs up to become light, fluffy, airy and not at all greasy. Each one was fresh and soft.

A half dozen of their doughnuts.

In terms of the flavours, I walked away with: matcha sugar, cherry almond, pineapple fritter, strawberry rose, birthday cake and fruit punch sugar.

Matcha is literally one of my favourite flavours. I love it in tea, latte, chocolate, cake, custard and ice cream format just to name a few ways in which it can be enjoyed. Anything matcha, I will eat it. The matcha sugar doughnut was my initial tasting and, I’m sorry to say, it’s definitely lacking. There’s none of that distinct vegetal taste from the matcha tea or that lingering natural sweetness. The texture of the granulated sugar is a nice addition to an otherwise plain, slightly green-coloured doughnut. I’d call this one a fail.

The cherry almond, on the other hand, packed quite a fruity punch with the almond slivers that topped the glaze remaining crunchy. The glaze was thick yet translucent and a beautiful pink. It was also smooth and melt-in-your-mouth good.

We tested the pineapple fritter later in the afternoon. The dough was a bit crispier, which gave it a nice texture. This one may have had a tad too much glaze for my liking though. I’ll also argue that pieces without any pineapple in it were slightly disappointing after having gotten pineapple in the earliest bite or two. The pineapple was somehow juicy without making the dough around it soggy, so more fruit please!

A tray of the strawberry rose doughnuts.

I’m on the fence about the strawberry rose. The floral taste was strong while the strawberry was quite subtle. The fruitiness needed to come through more in order to create a better balance. Granted, maybe those who prefer something less sugary sweet would go for this.

Before the evening was over, we polished off the remaining doughnuts. By the end of the night, the dough seemed to have absorbed the taste of the paper box, which is kind of disconcerting. Next time, I think I’ll transfer the doughnuts into a different container when I get home. The doughnuts themselves were holding up well; they continued to be nice and pillowy.

The texture of the birthday cake was great. The rainbow sprinkles kept firm and the crumbled pieces of sugar cookie on top of the glaze were delicious.

Surprisingly, my favourite out of the day’s selection turned out to be the fruit punch sugar doughnut. It was covered in granulated sugar, same as the matcha, but with a pink tinge to it. The flavour popped and had a tartness that reminded me of the best type of sour candy.

Let’s enjoy!

All-in-all, I’m not sure that Doughnut Party is entirely worth the hype, especially with the relatively long waits that I’ve both experienced and heard about. Maybe when things die down a bit, it’ll be easier to get in and out, and it’ll seem okay to drive out of the way to pick these pastries up.

I will give my kudos to the owners though. Running two businesses (Moonshine Doughnuts is their original baby; watch out for another review to come soon) is a lot of work and, to see such early success and so much community support from the beginning, is amazing. While these aren’t my Lucky’s Doughnuts, they are likely some of the best on offer in Edmonton right now and, for that reason, I’m recommending them.

Travel Roundup: Hong Kong, Macau & Japan 2016

Victoria Harbour

Victoria Harbour

It’s a brand new year, and four weeks in, I find myself looking back at 2016. It was quite the whirlwind, and I’m reminded of just how lucky I am, especially when it comes to travelling.

This past November was a big month for me. Not only did I spend another birthday in Vegas, but I was also able to take a fortnight off from work to do some exploring with friends in Asia, specifically Hong Kong, Macau and Japan.

Admittedly, I was slightly worried about being the so-called “guide” for our trio in Hong Kong. When my friends suggested that I go with them because my family is from there and I’ve been several times before, I smiled and agreed. Yet, in the back of my mind, I was thinking I could totally disappoint them. Sure, I’d gone in the past, but I was no expert. My trips to Hong Kong were always oriented around plans with relatives, often leaving very little time to be an actual tourist. They trusted me though, so we forged ahead with putting together a holiday.

What I originally thought was going to be a break primarily situated in Hong Kong ended up including a mini trek across Japan. About eight months before we travelled, the YEG Deals website flagged a round trip flight from Edmonton to Tokyo for a fantastic price and we opted to go for it. This was much to my mother’s dismay. My mom kept telling me that we would have saved money had we booked connecting flights from the start or if we waited for a special on a direct flight to Hong Kong. It was too late to change the booking though and we were determined to make it work.

When November rolled around, I wouldn’t say we were exactly ready. Personally, I felt slightly discombobulated because, for the first time in a while, I wasn’t leaving for a holiday with any sort of itinerary in hand. We did pull it together enough to make sure we had accommodations in all of the cities where we’d be staying. We also found comparatively affordable connecting flights from Tokyo to Hong Kong and Hong Kong to Hiroshima through discount airline HK Express before departing Edmonton. The three of us weren’t totally winging it, but this was unusual for me. I was out of my comfort zone with no clue as to what we were going to do on a day-to-day basis.

Thankfully, our trip happened to coincide with my parents’ holiday to Hong Kong, which means we had a good support system, if necessary. The day we flew into Hong Kong (dead tired from 30 straight hours of travel), they actually met up with us upon our arrival in Causeway Bay. My relatives were gracious enough to let us stay in an extra apartment that they own, and my parents were there to let us into the unit. Although we experienced a few hiccups on the first night of our stay, all issues were remedied by the following day. Our adventure had begun.

I have done a previous post (in photo format) about Hong Kong, so feel free to check that out in addition to what I have to say here. Also, I will say that I’m so pleased that I finally got a chance to explore this territory with minimal family obligations required. Being able to see the city from a different perspective with friends who have never been allowed us to take full advantage of what was on offer. We went at our own pace and it made me feel like this was truly a locale to visit (outside of the usual family reasons).

Accounting for all of the travel time between destinations, we really had to make the most of our days at each destination. Hong Kong was our initial stop, and aside from indulging in all of the food, we thought we’d take in some of the highlights.

Day 1 – Hong Kong

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Day one consisted of a bus ride to the top of Victoria Peak where we got a panoramic view of the city below. We also rode the MTR (one of the best city train systems I know of) to the Kowloon side. There, we waited to see the nighttime laser light show that took place across the water. When it was over, we hoofed it to Dim Dim Sum Hong Kong in Jordan. Named one of the world’s 101 best eateries by Newsweek, we wouldn’t relent until we sought it out. Two words: soup dumplings.

Day 2 – Hong Kong

Dim Sum at the famous Din Tai Fung. Truffled xiaolongbao!

Dim Sum at the famous Din Tai Fung. Truffled xiaolongbao!

We began day two with dim sum at Din Tai Fung, a Taiwanese chain with locations worldwide. Two of their branches in Hong Kong, including the one in Causeway Bay, were awarded one Michelin star each. More expensive than the dim sum we ate the night before, it was absolutely worthy of our money. Again, the soup dumplings (Xiaolongbao) were the way to go, but I’d praise the wontons and buns, too. I also love that you can watch the staff in the kitchen. Through the windows, at the entrance to the eatery, we could see them making all the little dumplings and wontons by hand, so we knew the food was fresh!

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When we had our fill, we worked our way to the 10,000 Buddhas Monastery. Missing the sign directing us there, we wound up getting a little sidetracked. We spent some time climbing the steps of what looked to be a memorial before we gave up and went back down to level ground. That’s when we happened upon the correct entrance. As we scaled our way up the steep hillside on a particularly hot and muggy day, we took in all of the golden gods lining the trail. Eventually, we made it to the top! It’s a beautiful little space filled with colourful statues. Despite the somewhat challenging ascent and the vertigo inducing descent, this off-the-beaten-track spot is one to see.

Next, we stopped in Diamond Hill to check out the Chi Lin Nunnery and Nan Lian Garden. This is actually one of my favourite attractions in Hong Kong. Located in Kowloon, it’s a surprising respite from the surrounding hustle and bustle just outside of the garden walls. The nunnery is also a quiet area that magically reverberates with the soul piercing sounds of chants from those who pray within.

Our second evening consisted of barhopping in Central. 001, a “secret” speakeasy with stylish décor and fancy cocktails, kicked off our plans. We then skipped to Brewdog, Tipping Point SoHo and Shack Tapazaka back in Causeway Bay.

Day 3 – Hong Kong

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Day three was sort of a write off when it came to being a tourist. I had lunch with my family at the Crowne Plaza near our apartment, so we spent much of the morning wandering until about one o’clock when we split up for a few hours. When my friends and I reconnected, we chose to take the bus to Stanley Beach. It’s a tranquil site in Hong Kong with sights of the water and a number of restaurants. After we walked the pier and the boardwalk, we settled in for dinner and drinks at Beef & Liberty (suggested to us by the owners of Moonzen Brewery). For a burger joint, they did that type of food really well. The only downside was the slow service, so it’s a good thing we weren’t in a rush.

Day 4 – Macau

A pretty building by Senado Square in Macau.

A pretty building by Senado Square in Macau.

On the fourth day, we ventured to Macau on a TurboJET ferry. Now, most of the hotels in the coastal city offer free shuttles to and from the ferry terminal. It’s simply a matter of finding the right bus. To save a little money and allow ourselves two rooms for our one night stay, we opted to book at the Crowne Plaza. The accommodations are awesome – modern in both style and technology – and, built in 2014, the hotel itself is relatively new and affordable. Unfortunately, the shuttle doesn’t come by to pick up guests as often as some of the larger resorts and it’s also a little further away from the main attractions. In fact, the cabbie who dropped us off at the end of the evening gave me a talking to; he stated that it was too far and we shouldn’t have booked there. That’s just his opinion though. The location certainly isn’t that bad.

Regardless, we had a good time in Macau. Senado Square is an open gathering spot that constantly looks as if it’s filled by a giant mass of people. With its Portuguese origins, the architecture is colourful with intricate details, but it has become pretty commercial. From there, we followed the signage that led up to the Ruins of St. Paul’s. The façade of the old church made a nice backdrop for all of those who were taking selfies on the steps. I quite like the Fortress of Macau. The vantage points at the top of the building allow visitors a sprawling outlook over the city.

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Since Macau is the Vegas of China, we also made a point of checking out the major hotels and casinos. That included the Grand Lisboa (I’ve stayed here previously), Wynn and MGM. Interestingly, most of the gamblers weren’t drinking or smoking; this was a total 180 from our observations in Las Vegas.

Dinner and drinks were had at Heart Bar. I had read about this location in a brewing magazine back at Brewdog in Hong Kong and it pretty much materialized in front of us. The pizzas were okay, but the cocktails were stellar and so was the bartender. He happened to be the one who seated us, and he had excellent recommendations. We completed our night by working off those calories as we searched for a way to get to the lighthouse on the peak (Guia Fortress). Venturing towards it, we finally found a route that led us to the structure. We weren’t able to enter it though, so when we were done, we worked our way back to the main part of town. Not ideal in the dark, but we ultimately made it to a more populated area without having to take any pitch black, narrow staircases down the hill.

Day 5 – Macau & Hong Kong

Lunch at North

Lunch at North

Our fifth day was scant in terms of sightseeing. We stopped at the Macau ferry terminal in the morning to book our tickets back to Hong Kong. Knowing we had some time to kill before our boat departed, we jumped onto the shuttle to the Venetian. It’s very similar to the resort in Vegas, so it was somewhat old hat for us. Although, I would argue that our lunch at North – specializing in northern Chinese and Sichuan cuisine – was a great way to end our time in Macau.

When we returned to Hong Kong, we dropped our bags off at the apartment and then we immediately set out for our most indulgent dinner on the trip. Tate Dining Room & Bar, run by Chef Vicky Lau, is another restaurant that has earned its Michelin star. At 980 HKD (approximately $170 CDN) for a 6-course meal – drinks not included – one has to be willing and ready to appreciate the flavours and the visuals. We loved it. From start to finish, this was a dinner that surprised and gratified us.

Day 6 – Hiroshima

The following morning we commenced our journey to Hiroshima, so it was chiefly a travel day. By the time we arrived at the Japanese airport and bused into the city, it was quite late. Another long day of travel exhausted us. Arriving in Hiroshima, we wanted to freshen up. Our apartment was easy enough to find and we had no problems getting into the place; however, it wasn’t exactly as advertised. Essentially a micro unit, this apartment was ideal for one person, two at the most. Advertising the place as able to accommodate three people was surely pushing it, but we managed. Otherwise, it was clean and well-appointed. We finished our evening with a satisfying supper at Orenokushikatsukuroda Hiroshimaminamiguchiekimaeten (what a mouthful) where we stuffed ourselves silly with a bunch of deep fried veggie, meat and cheese tempura battered skewers.

Day 7 – Hiroshima

The ferry from Tadanoumi to Rabbit Island.

The ferry from Tadanoumi to Rabbit Island.

Day seven marked a full week of vacation and our second day in Hiroshima. It actually brings up mixed feelings for me. My morning consisted of attempts to exchange my Hong Kong Dollars for Japanese Yen. I wasn’t able to find a nearby money exchange, and the first bank didn’t accept my cash. The second bank did, but at a hefty fee. Since I didn’t have the option to go elsewhere, I went ahead with the transaction.

When that was completed, we rode the train to Tadanoumi. From there, we caught a ferry that took us to Rabbit Island (Ōkunoshima). This was the single reason why Hiroshima was tacked onto our itinerary. My friend has a pet bunny and is basically obsessed with rabbits in general, so when she learned of the isle’s existence, there was no question we were going there. All-in-all, it was an enjoyable time. The bunnies that have somehow occupied the landmass (they’re apparently not the ones from the old labs that used to be there) are very friendly and will approach if there’s food. Indeed, they can be extremely excitable. One rabbit, found in a more secluded area, came up to me, and upon being fed, was so thrilled that it not only did a full 360 degree leap in the air, but while doing so, it also managed to pee itself at the same time. That urine struck me square in the right arm and leg. My jacket and jeans ended up moderately soaked. So, cute as these rabbits were, it ended up being a damper (pun intended) to the visit for me. Thankfully, my clothes dried quickly due to the windy conditions on the island and there was no stench. I was able to last the rest of the day without needing to detour for a change of clothes.

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For me, the day was saved with a meal at this amazing little ramen shop called Ippeiya. We learned of the joint through a Google search, and wow. The scrumptious bowls served to us were absolutely worth the chilly walk. I’d even go as far as to say I’d fly back to Hiroshima just to have another helping of their curry ramen.

Day 8 – Hiroshima & Kyoto

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Week two started with our last day in Hiroshima. Once we stored our luggage at the train station, we used our last few hours before departure to amble over to Hiroshima Castle, and, in fairly ominous fashion, we also took in the remaining ruins of the Atomic Bomb Dome (Hiroshima Peace Memorial) and Peace Park. Oddly, this was a rather fitting place to be seeing as how, just the day before, we had witnessed the results of the U.S. Presidential election and Donald Trump’s victory. The location isn’t without its beauty though. I’m glad we stopped there to stand in the presence of history.

Once we had perused the whole park, we realized we had better hoof it back to the station. While we missed the bullet train for the hour we booked (they are super punctual), our seats were non-reserved, so we were able to catch the subsequent one without any penalty. Approximately three hours later, we were in Kyoto. Our Airbnb here was more than we expected, mainly in comparison to the accommodations in Hiroshima. This place was huge! It was an open concept apartment with six single beds, a big closet, full kitchen, a large shower room, separate toilet and in-suite laundry (desirable after the rabbit incident). The only difficulty we encountered was the terrible portable Wi-Fi. Other than that, we couldn’t have asked for more.

My one travel companion knew someone in Kyoto, so we got a hold of this friend who graciously took us out on the town. The three of us were dying for some kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi, so he drove us to one where the majority of the plates are 100 yen each (roughly $1 CDN).

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If I’m correct, the one we went to was called Muten Kura Sushi Kyotogaidaimae. It was amazing. Not only was there a constant stream of plates running by at table-level (although, we did see a very rare crash on the course, which stalled things), but there was also a second conveyor belt that was used specifically for dishes we ordered through the tablet. Whenever we had a craving for something that we didn’t roll by ready-made, all we had to do was press a few buttons and it’d be there in minutes. Plus, for every five plates returned through a slot at the far end of the table, a game would be triggered on the tablet, providing diners with a chance to win a prize from the machine located at the top of the conveyor shelf. We only got one toy after giving back about thirty plates, so the system may be rigged. That’s okay though. It was still a lot of fun, and everything was delicious and fresh.

Next, we were taken to Shogun-zuka Seiryu-den Temple where I attempted to snap dozens of photos of the temple, grounds, red maple trees (still in the midst of the transition from summer to fall) and city in the dark. Inside the temple is a replica painting of Aofudo (Blue Acala). Considered a masterpiece of Japanese Buddhist art, the actual piece is enshrined out of sight. The temple also has a huge observation deck that provides views of various Kyoto landmarks.

Our new Kyoto guide then led us to his friend’s bar, Loop Salon. There, we spent the rest of our evening imbibing on some refreshing cocktails (I NEED that bottle of FAUCHON Paris tea liqueur!), gin from the fairly new Kyoto Distillery and gyoza that we had delivered as a late night snack. A few hours passed and we determined that it was time to hit up a 7/11 before heading home.

Day 9 – Kyoto

Ramen at Kobushi

Ramen at Kobushi

When the four of us awoke in the morning, we didn’t have to go too far for food. Within a block from our apartment building, on either side, were several eateries. Failing to get a table at the first place we selected, ramen felt like an excellent second choice, so we opted to try Kobushi. With fish broths, we were taking a bit of a chance since my one friend is allergic to shellfish, but we managed okay having a local there to ask questions for us. The restaurant itself is tiny and all the table/counter space is shared. Rather than going with a soup ramen, I went for an oil-based dish instead. I appreciated trying a different take on this Japanese staple, and I’d undoubtedly eat it again.

Once we ate enough, we hopped on a bus that took us to the Zen Buddhist Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Kinjaju-ji or Rokuon-ji). What a gorgeous and bright day to see this National Special Historic Site. The sunlight reflecting off of the pavilion and the water was picturesque. Following that, we rode another bus to the Ryōan-ji Temple. Known for its large rock formations in the Japanese Zen garden, I found this to be an interesting locale. Maybe I’m a little too restless for a place like the garden. Nevertheless, the land was lovely with its large pond, unusual landscaping and colour-changing trees. Our last stop on the historical tour was the Kyoto Imperial Palace. Regrettably, we got to the grounds a tad too late to make the last entrance.

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With nothing more to see in the area, we went back to downtown Kyoto where we picked up some alcoholic beverages from a shop, cracked them open (yes, you can drink in public), and then perused the Nishiki Market. Basically a long, narrow alleyway filled with stalls and storefronts, it was a lot of fun to see all of the different trinkets and traditional Japanese food available for purchase. For supper, we went to Yamachan for maboroshi no tebasaki (deep-fried chicken wings). These were ridiculously delicious. Complete with instructions on how best to eat them, the meat was fall-off-the-bone tender and these wings satisfied any salty cravings we may have had.

Dessert followed at Saryo Tsujiri Gion where we ordered fancy parfait glasses filled high with matcha flavoured ice cream, mochi, cake and whipped cream. We then investigated the maze-like streets, which led us to the Hokanji Temple and Yasaka-no-to-Pagoda. The structure was subtly lit against the backdrop of the dark sky, making for a striking image. We then returned to Loop Salon for a second low-key evening of drinks.

Day 10 – Kyoto

The gates into Fushimi Inari Shrine.

The gates into Fushimi Inari Shrine.

On day three in Kyoto, we ventured out as a trio and made our way to the train station where we had soba noodle set lunches at Kyoto Tagoto and dessert at Mister Donut. Afterwards, the train took us to Fushimi Inari Shrine where we climbed Mount Inari. It’s no Mount Fuji, but it was enough of a workout for me. The higher you go, the quieter it gets though. I’d say it’s definitely a worthwhile hike.

To-ji Temple was next on our list. There, we saw the pagoda and exhibits featuring Esoteric Buddhist art. Getting a chance to go inside the main floor of the pagoda to see the interior was neat. All of the detail was spectacular. Some of the larger statues are also very remarkable when seen close-up, especially the statue of Yakushi (circa 1603) found in the Kondo.

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Done with the temple, we wandered to Kyoto Brewing Company where we had a few drinks on their makeshift patio. Complete with a food truck to feed the masses, it’s a cool venue to hangout for an hour or two.

Beers were followed by some shopping and sustenance at Gyu-Kaku, a Japanese BBQ restaurant. We tried everything from fondue chicken to beef tongue and pork belly to horse meat tartare. The flavours were delightful and the cuts of meat were easy to cook ourselves.

Now, I’m certain that our local friend picked Gyu-Kaku on purpose. Situated on the second story of a building, the main floor housed part of Club World. We’d heard stories of the latter throughout our holiday, so it seemed fitting to the guys that we should go. My girlfriend and I reluctantly went in with them. Although we had our reservations, it turned out to be a blast. The main space of the nightclub is much smaller than we expected, meaning it got cramped. But, the other room, where a different DJ was playing, had a lounge-like atmosphere that we appreciated for a good chunk of the evening. Festivities for our last day in Kyoto ended with the worst bowl of ramen I’ve ever had. Apparently, the food at this one shop only tastes okay if you’re drunk. I guess I didn’t get near that point because I couldn’t even eat it. Those noodles were just too undercooked.

Day 11 – Tokyo

Chicken wings at Kawara Cafe.

Chicken wings at Kawara Cafe.

Day 11 consisted mostly of travelling from Kyoto to Tokyo. When we arrived in Tokyo, our Airbnb in Shibuya wasn’t available for another couple of hours, so we hunkered down at Kawara Café & Kitchen for a late lunch. Once we were able to drop off all of our stuff at the apartment (also wonderful with a small kitchen, two beds in the living room, a separate bed room, full bathroom and laundry), we went back out to explore the neighbourhood.

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To satiate ourselves, we combed the internet for sushi places and came across Uobei, another conveyor belt restaurant that is actually owned by the Genki Sushi chain. Rather than having plates that constantly make their rounds, diners are actually seated in rows where each line has their own belts. A tablet assigned to an individual is used to place orders of up to three items at a time, ensuring that every plate comes fresh from the kitchen. To avoid any wait, the belts are stack three high, so food can be delivered on multiple levels. Admittedly, the atmosphere does make one feel as if they’re part of a weird assembly line; however, it’s efficient. I also loved that the tablet had buttons that provided multiple options for each sushi order (i.e. no wasabi). Plus, it’s affordable.

Day 12 – Tokyo

Good Town Doughnuts

Good Town Doughnuts

A dozen days into the trip and it occurred to us that our vacation was coming to a quick end, so we packed it in on our last full day in Tokyo. We started off by seeking out the Good Town Doughnuts shop (I read about it in a Japanese magazine). Since we kind of ambled and popped into other stores along the way, by the time we got there, our snack ended up being our lunch. What a treat though. I’d say their fluffy pastries are the closest rival to Lucky’s Doughnuts (in Vancouver) that I’ve managed to find. Turns out I just had to travel half way around the world to do it.

Eating completed, we strolled to Harajuku (Takeshita-dori) where we did a bit of shopping. Towards the end of the area, we made a turn down a narrow street where I found a stall selling some clothing, including the now ubiquitous bomber jacket. Instead of a satin one, as seems to be very popular, I noticed one hanging there made using black velvet. Decorated with appliques of embroidered flowers and tiger heads, it was the best one I’d seen. I didn’t think it was my size, but the vendor had already pulled a mirror out, so I could see how it looked on me. It fit like a glove and I adored it. It was also a steal at about $60 CDN. That’s about half of what I would have paid at home for something similar and of the same quality. Looking at Wikipedia as I wrote this post, I learned that some of the stores in Harajuku are known as “antenna shops” where manufacturers provide prototypes as a way to test the market. That’s really cool because that means one can walk away a trendsetter and not even know it.

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We continued our walk by heading to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Tower (Tocho) in Shinjuku. There, we were able to take the elevator up, free of charge, to one of the observation decks on the 45th floor. My friend said that on the other side of the block is where he remembered seeing the homeless cardboard housing, and that’s something I had wondered about. As a child, I had been to Tokyo, and I distinctly remember seeing dozens of large cardboard boxes lined up outside the train stations. Those were people’s homes. They probably still exist, but we never saw them during our holiday.

Ready to head back to Shibuya after a long day, our quest for a good spot to dine turned into our goal. It was raining out (the only time during our whole trip), so we didn’t go too far from our apartment. Yet, we still lucked out when we stumbled upon a dining room called Jibieno Hut (I found the site by Google translating while in Tokyo, but it eludes me now; if you’d like the logo/Japanese name, email me for a photo. I found the website again!), specializing in wild game. Our night was completed with shopping at Loft department store and one last ice cream bar from 7/11.

Day 13 – Tokyo

The final day of our vacation crept up all too fast. We had to be out of our apartment pretty early, so we stored our luggage in lockers at Shibuya train station first thing in the morning. With our few remaining hours, we decided to take a look at what was on the other side of the building (not a whole lot). We did, however, get to use a vending machine that dispensed tickets, which we gave to the restaurant cook who then whipped up a fresh order of food for us. That was different. We don’t know how to read Japanese, so we relied on the photos. If there are no pictures and only text on the buttons, it’s a chance one has to take when making their selection.

A bit more shopping at UNIQLO and 109 Men’s, a snack at Uobei Sushi, a ride on the Narita Express train, and then we were back on a plane to Edmonton. Just like that, it was over.

I’m so happy to have had this experience. I know that my travel companions are people that I can get along with for a prolonged period of time and I made a new friend in Kyoto. My single disappointment is that my passport is only one “stamp” fuller as Hong Kong and Macau no longer issues them. Japan was the only place where I received a sticker. My one regret is that my boyfriend couldn’t join us this time. The upside is that I know I’ll be going on more adventures, so there will be more chances in the future.

Vancouver & Whistler 2016: Trip Recap and Photostream

The camp/cabin spot also had cool rusty cars with overgrown wild flowers. I had to stop for photos.

The camp/cabin spot across the road from Shannon Falls had cool rusty cars with overgrown wild flowers on the grounds. I had to stop for photos.

Towards the end of April, I finally decided to book a trip to Vancouver during the month of May. A bit of a whirlwind, I convinced my boyfriend to join me for an extended weekend that would also encompass an overnight jaunt to Whistler and Squamish.

The majority of the vacation was quite low-key; there isn’t a whole lot we did that most who’ve been or have researched anything about Vancouver wouldn’t already be aware of. But, I always like to share my adventures with those that may happen upon this blog, and a big part of that is having a chance to showcase some of my favourite photographs from my holidays.

So, armed with a small duffle bag of necessities and my camera, we set off for four days of visits with friends/relatives, food, shopping, nature and a whole lot of walking.

Day 1

We arrived in Vancouver by 7:30am, and our Airbnb wasn’t going to be ready until about ten o’clock. Making our way from the airport to Main Street, which is where we were staying for two nights, took a little while. The rest of our time was killed at a coffee shop just down the block from our rental and at the grocery store where we picked up some food to cook breakfast after check-in.

Once we settled into the apartment (it was an excellent unit and location, by the way), we met up with my friend at El Camino’s on Main Street for brunch. The Latin American food was so flavourful. I also liked that they were playful with the eggs benny dish I ordered – corn bread replaced the usual English muffin – and the house made hot sauce is awesome.

I couldn’t start my trip off without some doughnuts from Lucky’s. After brunch, we headed north down Main to 49th Parallel to pick some up. They were just as good as I recalled. No word of a lie, I’d been thinking about these desserts masked as breakfast staples for more than a year, and attempts to have them mailed to me or brought home for me were thwarted time and again. Every calorie eaten from Lucky’s Doughnuts was worth it.

With our early rise to get to Vancouver, we took it easy in the afternoon. Following a short cat nap, we strolled to Queen Elizabeth Park, which was about five minutes away from our Airbnb. The gardens there are lovely and the park provides wonderful views of the city’s downtown.

We finished off the night enjoying a meal and drinks with friends at Rogue, and then we ambled through Gastown for a bit before a nightcap of dessert and beer at the Flying Pig.

Day 2

Compared to the first day of the trip, this was a relatively relaxed Sunday.

At my boyfriend’s recommendation, we started off with lunch at Jinya Ramen where my cousin and my friend joined us. Sometimes people question ramen as a dish to be appreciated, and I get it. The resemblance to a bowl of instant noodles is uncanny. However, ramen noodles that are made well have a bite that is springy, and the broth should be tasty, yet not overly salty. Jinya Ramen fit the bill. I could have gone for seconds, and I would have, if anyone else was willing to join me. Alas, there were no takers.

One of the best surprises during our holiday was getting to visit with artist Jon Shaw. My boyfriend wanted to catch up with him while we were visiting, and Jon was gracious enough to invite all of us to his studio. Jon had just presented seven Star Wars inspired pieces at a show in his apartment/studio the week before we arrived, so most of them were still up on the walls. I had seen Jon’s work on his website prior to meeting him, and his talent is impressive. In fact, the images online don’t seem to do his art justice. Hopefully, I’ll have a chance to own one of his originals some day.

The rest of our afternoon was spent walking around downtown and then back on Main Street. On Main, I did some more shopping at one of my favourite stores, Front & Company. The shop stocks fantastic pieces of jewellery, and I’m never able to walk out without at least a few items (or ten). I also popped into Barefoot Contessa where I found a couple of other whimsical accessories to bring home with me. The best part about buying jewellery is that the pieces are small enough to fit into your luggage when all you’ve got is a duffle bag smaller than a carry-on suitcase.

Personally, I love Main Street because it’s a quiet neighbourhood that has plenty of coffee shops, food establishments and many shops (tons of antique stores, if that floats your boat) to peruse. It’s sort of an escape from the hustle and bustle of Vancouver’s true downtown, which I really appreciate.

Later in the evening, we met up with more friends for dinner and drinks at Portland Craft, located on Main between 22 and 23 Avenues. This place was chosen on a whim because we happened to be waiting for a bus right in front of the pub’s doors earlier in the day. They have late night happy hour that runs for two hours before close from Sunday to Thursday, and the prices are reasonable. In fact, the pizzas that were served at a mere $8 each were phenomenal. But, honestly, all of the food exceeded my expectations.

Day 3

Since they would make for a good snack on our road trip to Whistler, we started the day off right with some more doughnuts from Lucky’s. Then we went for a quick drive through Stanley Park before we were off on the winding Sea to Sky Highway (a.k.a. BC Highway 99, north of Vancouver).

In Whistler, we were ravenous, so we hunkered down at BrewHouse for lunch. The pizza I had hit the spot. When we were done eating, we wandered around the shops (my favourite was Ruby Tuesday Accessories) and took photos by the Olympic rings before taking our leave.

With beautiful views on the way to Whistler Village and even more breathtaking ones on the way back as we headed to Squamish for the night, it was a lazy, yet, somehow, tiring day.

Day 4

Fresh from a deep slumber, we woke up to the sight of The Chief through the window of our room at the Sandman in Squamish. We grabbed some breakfast at the hotel for fuel, and then we took the show on the road. We made a few stops between Squamish and Vancouver, the best of which was Shannon Falls. It’s definitely a tourist spot since a lot of buses were parked and waiting. But, it wasn’t overly crowded and it was a nice sight. More photo opportunities were found across the way in the camp/cabin area as well. I can’t remember what it’s called, but it’s literally right across the road from the entrance to the Shannon Falls ramp.

When we got back to Vancouver, my boyfriend drove us up to a viewing spot on Cypress Hill where we were able to get a view of the entire city. Unfortunately, it wasn’t particularly clear out – it was quite smoggy – but I definitely saw the appeal of the location. On a day when the visibility is good, it’d be the perfect spot to grab some panoramic shots.

With time left for lunch, we decided to try a Mexican restaurant that a friend of ours recommended. Sal y Limon is a casual dining establishment where you order at the counter, you’re given a number and they’ll bring the food to you when it’s ready. I felt like having quesadillas. The woman working the till said they weren’t large, so I ordered two: vegetarian and al pastor. Well, they were each a pretty darn big ten inches, and my stomach was more than full by the time I finished them. My boyfriend tried one of the tacos (actually sold individually) and also a torta. He said the taco was great, but the torta was a bit underwhelming. The food didn’t live up to my expectations either. Maybe I’ve been spoiled at home over the last few years. Considering Edmonton is home to Tres Carnales, which has been named one of the best restaurants in Canada, I was kind of comparing the food at Sal y Limon to the flavours there. The al pastor was just very different in taste, but still decent. Surprisingly, I quite enjoyed the vegetarian quesadilla though. I think it was the zucchini and all the cheese.

One more visit to Lucky’s Doughnuts on Main was on the agenda. It was my last chance to have them in who knows how long again. I bought a half dozen to take home with me, and believe me, I carried those things all the way back home like the box was my baby or something. I will say that, apparently, I wasn’t the only one. The attendant who checked me in for my flight back to Edmonton told me I was the fourth person she’d seen that day carrying a box of doughnuts home. It also sounded like mine were the first she’d seen from Lucky’s, so now it may be my mission to find out where the other ones came from. Doughnut taste tests might have to be part of my next trip to Vancouver.

Anyway, a final drink was had at Colony prior to leaving Main and dropping off our rental vehicle downtown. This place has some great daily specials, and it’s a chill spot to hang out for a while.

As always, I hope that those who happen upon these travel posts enjoy my photographs and may also benefit from some of the information shared about each city.

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).

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Izakaya Tomo

Bottles stacked on open shelves create a wall that partitions the space.

Bottles stacked on open shelves create a wall that partitions the space.

Early in 2013, I started to hear about Izakaya Tomo (@IzakayaTomo780). I was excited to see that a Japanese tapas bar was being opened in the city, the first of its kind here. Having been to Guu in both Vancouver and Toronto, I had an idea of what this new establishment was striving for, and equally high hopes. Of course, it took me almost two years to make it there. Situated on 99 Street and 37 Avenue in a strip mall, it’s a far cry from Edmonton’s more popular areas. Whyte Avenue, downtown, 124 Street it is not. But, after a long drive to the south side of the city, our group wandered into the natural and minimalist venue that is very reminiscent of actual Japanese spaces where we were pleasantly greeted with a loud “irasshaimase.” Outfitted with just nine wooden tables and matching benches and a few seats at the bar, I can see that there is the possibility of a wait on busier evenings. However, reservations are accepted, so if you are prone to planning ahead, give them a call.

With a mix of traditional offerings as well as some dishes with fusion twists – the carbonara udon comes to mind – Izakaya Tomo has made a name for itself in Edmonton since it started welcoming patrons through its doors. The restaurant has racked up numerous accolades from the city’s many foodies who helped push it into The Tomato‘s 2014 list of 100 best things to eat in Edmonton, taking the No. 8 position.

Once we stripped off our bags and winter gear and deposited everything into the storage box next to our table, we got comfortable and began perusing the menus. To get the evening going, we ordered some drinks of which I selected a peach chu-hi (chūhai). I didn’t know what it was made of, but my friend recommended it. As it turns out, chu-hi is typically made with shōchū, a distilled alcoholic beverage, combined with carbonated water and juice. Apparently, some variants may use vodka instead, and canned chu-hi can sometimes have a lot more alcohol content than those prepared at bars and restaurants. I’m not sure if the glass I was given came from a can or not, but it seemed like the amount of alcohol was small. Other drinks on the menu included beer, sake, shōchū, cocktails and non-alcoholic beverages.

As we sipped on our drinks, we selected eleven dishes from the plentiful menu to share between us. About half had been sampled by two of my dining companions when they had visited previously, so, of course, we took their word. The rest of the plates chosen were new for everyone.

Crispy Tako Yaki

Crispy Tako Yaki

The first order that made it to the table was the last one picked on a whim. Crispy Tako Yaki, a battered ball filled with diced octopus and what tasted and felt like a starchy mix and then topped with takoyaki sauce (similar to mayo), aonori (dried green seaweed) and katsuobushi (dried, fermented and smoked bonito flakes). I remember having these at the night market on a trip to Vancouver several years ago and I can’t say I really enjoyed them then, but I quite liked them this time. The nicely battered ball broke away to a smooth potato-like center and pieces of octopus that had a bit of bite to them, but were not over cooked. The savory taste coming from the sauce, seaweed and bonito elevated the dish.

After that, it was like a deluge, and we struggled to keep up with the succession of plates. The tako yaki was followed by the Tuna Tataki where I noted that the fish was very fresh. I know that any time fish is seared, there’s a risk of the meat becoming tough. This wasn’t necessarily the case here, but I did find that the texture of the raw fish wasn’t as smooth as I would have hoped or expected. Still, the simple flavours of the tataki were enjoyable. Around the same time, an order of the Nama Harumaki was dropped off at our table. Leafy greens, julienned vegetables, avocado and smoked salmon all wrapped up in rice paper and dipped in a soy and mayo based sauce, it was kind of like a really healthy order of maki. Although there wasn’t a whole lot to it, the rolls made for a refreshing palate cleanser.

Next up was the Crispy Spicy Tuna Roll. My friend said the heat from the sauce was spicier than she remembered. However, I thought it was pretty mild. I do like a good amount of spice in the food I eat though, so I think it’s a matter of preference. The rolls were a good size – small enough that I could fit the whole thing in my mouth at once, but large enough that they had substance. The batter on the outside was light and not greasy. I’m certain that I could have polished off a second order.

The rolls were proceeded by a couple servings of the Prawn Spring Roll. Raved about by my friends, the thin, crunchy shells were stuffed with prawns, avocado and cheese. The cheese, likely cream, was a surprising yet excellent addition to the spring roll. That ingredient, along with the avocado, created a wonderfully rich and velvety texture.

Two kinds of Chicken Karaage were ordered: original and one finished off with a layer of mayo sauce. The original version is similar to KFC chicken in that it is marinated, coated in batter and fried. Paired with a light soy based dipping sauce, it arguably bests the fast food version. The second type of karaage was the same chicken, but cooked with mayo (I think it was spicy). A couple of us thought it was better than the original because the mayo provided an extra layer of flavour. Yet, as my friend pointed out, the mayo did take away some of the crunch that came with the original recipe. Again, this comes down to personal appetite. Aside from the two chicken karaages that we picked, there were, I believe, three other options available.

To finish off our main meal, we had a bowl of Oyster Ponzu. Fresh, meaty, juicy oysters that are breaded, fried and served in a ponzu sauce with a squeeze of lemon, this was so delicious. Dinner was then capped off with an order of California Sesame Seed rolls. On par with other sushi places in Edmonton, these weren’t much to write home about. I would say that they did hit the spot though. We also had a bowl of Yaki Edamame. Salted and grilled so they were slightly charred, I think the method used to prepare them helped to infuse more flavour into the beans.

All-in-all, it was quite a bit of food, but I definitely don’t think we overdid it. I think for a quartet, this was the perfect number of tapas plates. The favourites of the evening that will have me craving more from Izakaya Tomo are: Crispy Tako Yaki, Crispy Spicy Tuna Roll, Prawn Spring Roll and the Oyster Ponzu. I seem to like all the stuff that has been fried. Go figure!

Each of us saved some room for dessert as well. One person went with the Vanilla Ice Cream with Koku-To Uneshu (brown sugar plum wine syrup). It looked like one of the lighter choices. Another ate the Caramalized Sweet Potatoes with Ice Cream. Waffling between that selection and the Matcha Ice Cream Sandwich, the latter wound up being my final decision. I was very happy with my selection because it gave me a bit of everything I wanted. The potent green tea ice cream sat inside a sandwich of two mini pancakes with cooked red beans on the side and soft, fluffy peanut flavoured mochi (Japanese rice cake).

The food at Izakaya Tomo is prepared at lightning speeds, so you can get in and out quickly even if you order several items. This probably helps for turnaround of tables on nights when they have a full house. At the same time, while they don’t actually rush you out, the fact that the food is served so fast sort of means you don’t really linger as long as you might have wanted to. The whole point of an izakaya is to be a gathering place where people hang out for a whole evening. Even though that is what the establishment is aiming for, the small size of the restaurant and the impeccably prompt service almost create the opposite effect, which is a little ironic.

Despite that, this place is great. Drinks included, we each paid about $40 to $45 for dinner, which when you take into account everything we packed away, I would say was worth the money. The staff are extremely friendly, and, if there are no people waiting for a table, I’d be inclined to spend the entire night with friends or family snacking on the food and imbibing the various beverages that are available.