Busy Weekend in Ottawa

I’ve been so busy in Ottawa that I haven’t had time to blog for my foodie friends. Head on over to Timothy Gwyn Writes for an idea of why I had an eighteen hour day Saturday. I’ll get right to the point – food. We haven’t been travelling anyway.

Friday night we found enough free time to get together at The Standard Tavern, a pub on Elgin. Caroline had excellent grilled Mahi Mahi tacos, which came with red cabbage shreds, much like the coleslaw style we do at home. I had the mac and cheese, which came in a little iron skillet. Both our meals came with a tossed salad of spring greens, lightly dressed. We did not linger, so that I could get back to Can-Con in time for the Bundoran Press party in the entertainment suite.

Saturday we had planned on separate dinners because the convention schedule was very full. In the end, we were both hungry at 8:00pm because I hadn’t managed to fit in a meal between the convention sessions and Caroline’s previously acquired deli food no longer looked so appetizing. We managed to connect for a late supper at Maxwell’s Bistro, also on Elgin. I was hungry because of the long day and the late hour and had a Pollo pizza with chicken and peppers on a nice brick-oven style crust. Caroline had a beef melt with carmelized onion, swiss cheese, and a horseradish and blue cheese mayo. The mayo was subtle, especially the blue cheese part, but nice. I walked Caroline back to our hotel and went to the second night’s convention party for a bit.

We went out for breakfast this morning, as we’ve been eating the hot continental at the hotel and felt like a change. We went to the Elgin Street Diner, which has all sorts of original touches like their own baked beans as a breakfast side as well as a breakfast potato that is closer to fried mashed potatoes than your typical hash browns. Before I forget, amazing blackboard art in this diner – I wasn’t sure it was really chalk. Wow! Not just beautifully lettered menu items all around the room, but an amazing mural of past present and future diners! Caroline says they know how to poach a soft egg. I can vouch for the three-cheese omelette, to which I added mushrooms. This place is open 24 hours, by the way.

Tonight we had more time. Can-Con ended in the afternoon, and I had time to come back to the Best Western and work on the other blog for a while before dinner. For a break from Elgin Street, we went the other way and walked over to The Buzz on Bank Street. On Sunday, Monday and Tuesday evenings, you can bring your own wine and pay a very modest corkage of just $5. Other nights, BYO is not available. Lots of nice things on the menu, and we settled on sharing a Woolwich Cheese and Garlic Affair while I hogged a bowl of tonight’s soup, a mushroom cream with potato. I contemplated the Malay lamb shanks and even tonight’s seafood special, but it wouldn’t have gone with red wine, and we had taken a bottle of Guenoc (Californian) Lake County Cabernet Sauvignon that we picked up at the vintages section of the local LCBO. Caroline wavered between the duck confit and the venison osso bucco and chose the latter. It was very tender. I ended up ordering the filet mignon, and it was marvelous. Melt on your fork.

We shared a dessert, a pumpkin cheesecake with a cinnamon cream cheese icing. Amazing.

Lobster Roll

Well, this is the last weekend before our vacation starts, so if I’m going to do any sophisticated blogging before we go, now is the time. Sophisticated? That’s new, you say. Well, no. What I meant was, with all the technical features that are possible on my home computer. Such as posting a cropped and edited map, after I bludgeoned Googlemaps into routing it my way. Who am I kidding? After I bludgeoned Googlemaps into routing it Caroline’s way. Scroll down a little, and you can see an earlier version on a previous post. Hotel availability caused some of the changes. Caroline’s penchant for sending us through the mountains caused others.

Lobster RollYou can click on this map to see a larger and more legible version, or you can see the fully zoomable Googlemaps version here.

You may notice that the route is not very direct. That is so we can hit some scenic drives through the Adirondacks and Green Mountains, which should be in peak autumn colours by the time we get there. Keep your fingers crossed for some exceptionally colourful Pictures of the Day. Also, we have a request for at least one photo of a covered bridge.

The trip now has a name, provided by Caroline. In honour of our last trip to the West Coast, known as Salmon Run, we are calling this eastern trip Lobster Roll. This is only fair; salmon is more my thing than Caroline’s, whereas lobster appeals more to her than me. For aficionados, I should explain that neither of us are really fans of crustacean on a plate, but she is looking forward to some lobster rolls, perhaps some bisque, and so on. I’m hoping for some scallops, some chowder, and perhaps some Atlantic salmon.

Most of our travel arrangements have been finalized. We know what we will be driving, or at least we know what we asked the rental agency for – a Toyota RAV4. Hotels are booked. Early on, we had contemplated splurging on a couple of B&Bs, but we have decided against. For the most part, we will be staying at Best Westerns, because Caroline works at one, and there are discounted rates available for employees. She enjoys seeing how other hotels operate, and comparing them to hers.

I will be doing some hiking in the mornings, Caroline says she’ll join me for a stroll in the afternoon. The daily drive will only amount to three hours or so, so we should have plenty of time for sightseeing.

Our vacation begins on Thursday, but the Lobster Roll does not start until Monday, October 6th. That is because we will be spending the weekend in Ottawa so that I can attend Can-Con, a Science Fiction & Fantasy convention, where I will be hanging out with editors, publishers and other writers of SFF. For details on that, you could pop over to my other blog: Timothy Gwyn Writes. Or you might find it convenient to start at my website, timothygwyn.com which gives easy access to all three of my blogs. The third one, Lake of the Woods Ice Patrol, is dormant right now, as it is all about spring ice conditions on the lake at home. Cool aerial photos, though, if you want to check it out.

Okay, enough stalling. Time to get packing!

 

Three Dinners in Winnipeg

Still haven’t been on a real road trip, but I spent the weekend in Winnipeg at KeyCon, a convention for fans and creators of Speculative Fiction. If you want to read about how that went for me, head on over to Timothy Gwyn Writes. This blog is about travel, food and wine. Not necessarily in that order.

Friday night, we ate at Deseo Bistro. I just reviewed it here a few weeks ago, so you could just scroll down if you want to know more about this fine restaurant. We picked it for the first night because we know we can trust both the food and the service.

Saturday night, after an exhausting day of stair-climbing at the Radisson (Keycon sprawls over three floors, not counting the hospitality suites) we joined our friend Donna for a dinner at the Deer and Almond in the Exchange District. It’s another tapas style restaurant, with very wide-ranging cuisine influences. I cannot remember everything we tried, but my personal favourite was the scallop dish with an Asian salad. We all enjoyed the mushrooms with Gruyere, and the Salmon tartare was inspired. It would have been impossible to match wine with everything, so we just went with the Argentino Malbec and enjoyed it.

Sunday night is tricky in Winnipeg; a lot of places close. Our first choice was Bonfire Bistro – it was well located (on Corydon) for us to hit on the way out of the city, but it was not open. After texting Donna for a recommendation, we rolled down Corydon almost to Confusion Corner and parked at Mano á Mano. Caroline wanted funky pizza, and in our tired and somewhat cranky state, we almost walked out because the menu reads like pretty standard classic Italian, and that’s not what we were in the mood for. However, with nowhere else to go, we stayed and looked more closely at the menu, and were very glad we did.

I had the Ensalata Misto, a salad of mixed greens with apple and goat cheese, and it was wonderful. We chose two pizzas – they have a wood-fired oven there – and they were both more interesting than the menu might have suggested. The ‘White Pie’ was a primarily mushroom pizza with fennel pesto, and we loved it. The Ham and Pineapple was not to be confused with any kind of chain pizza. It featured Prosciutto for one thing, fresh pineapple that had been marinated in honey something-or-other for another, and hot peppers that were not for the faint of heart. The crust, by the way, was thin, but not insanely thin. We both liked it.

I should also mention that our server was knowledgeable, helpful and patient, as well as efficient. Lastly, someone there has a good eye for visuals. We ate in the lounge, because there was construction noise from a deck-building project affecting the dining room and the management had chosen to close off that area. Oh yeah, the chairs were comfortable. The colour scheme was predominately grey, but the use of texture on the walls was both attractive and easy on the eyes. The salad was beautifully presented, too. You can only do so much with what pizza looks like on a plate.

When I’m doing Trip Advisor reviews, I have a very difficult standard for giving five points: I have to wish we could do the whole meal over again without changing a thing. Think about that for a minute. If I order the wrong thing, even if the chef sweat blood over it, the restaurant loses a point. That’s not entirely fair, but it speaks to how well the menu and the staff out front communicate with me. I give Mano a Mano my full endorsement. We liked it so much, we took another identical salad (dressing on the side) to enjoy at home.

Mini-trip: Winnipeg

We have no big road trips planned, but needed to do a little shopping and have a dinner out. The weather forecast was for snow and rain mixed, so running to Winnipeg and back on the same day seemed like a poor idea. With that in mind, we booked a room at the Hilton and made a mini-vacation of it. We lucked out – the snow never amounted to much. A cold and windy night made me dread my customary hour’s walk in the morning, which I usually do outdoors. Chickened out and took advantage of the hotel’s gym, which is available to guests twenty four hours a day. The pool was closed for maintenance.

As a foodie and travel blogger, I am often asked     I am sometimes asked    somebody asked me once: where do you eat in Winnipeg?

My new answer is Deseo Bistro. I was first taken there by a foodie friend, and have been trying to get back ever since. Struck out when I was in the Peg for the Central Canada Literary Festival – this small restaurant gets pretty busy on a Saturday night. This time around, we were able to get a reservation by taking a table at 5:30, but if we had planned this trip a little further ahead, I’m sure we could have managed a more fashionable hour.

What makes this place cool is their menu format. You can graze your way through a handful of ‘Small Bites’, sharing with your friends, or you can order a salad and an entree from the ‘Big Bites’ side and go your own way. On our first visit, the ladies went tapas style, and I ordered courses.

This time around, we just did a selection of the small bites. My favourite was the mushroom brioche with black garlic and chevre. Caroline really liked the sablefish on golden beet kimchi, and we both enjoyed the duck confit on fettucine with poached egg. That last was a nightly special, by the way, so don’t count on it. I approve of the use of specials to keep the menu from getting stale with regulars. They also have a pretty good wine list, with a good variety of wines available by the glass, including a Gewurtztraminer, which is a fun wine to have with spicy dishes, especially Asian inspired ones.

Gave this place four points on Trip Advisor, and I’ll be back.

Back Home

Four nights is too short a visit.  We’re back home, and tomorrow we both return to work.  Trip home departed right on time and arrived back in Winnipeg a few minutes early.

We would definitely stay at the Hilton in Puerto Vallarta again.  We liked the small size and friendly service, and it was nice having the same Hilton touches as at home, especially the nice soft mattress.  Many Mexican hotels seem to mistake hardness for quality, and I’ve spent weeks with hips aching from beds as hard as balsa wood.

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We never did find out where the house wine actually came from; the label only revealed that it was imported by a company based near Cancun.  I should add that we finally got around to tasting the Merlot and found it foxy and harsh.  The Shiraz and the Cabernet were better. Not award-winning better, or Robert Parker better, but drinkable.

Some other thoughts on the hotel. I thought the selection and quality of food at the Seafire, the buffet restaurant, was fine.  However, it was not busy at night, whereas La Delice, the French a la carte dining room was always pretty full.  We never got around to eating there, so I cannot say if the popularity is justified.  I used to hate buffets, but now that I am paying close attention to my diet, and particularly my carb intake, buffets work well for me.  The Seafire always had good Mexican items and good fish.  Perhaps the people that chose other places to eat were looking more for meat and potatoes, pasta or pizza type meals.  On ‘International Night’ I was disappointed in the Beef Wellington (this dish should never be kept warm on a buffet line) but delighted by the pork tenderloin in berry sauce.  The salad bar always had a dependable array of basics, plus one or two original dishes each meal.  Examples of the latter were a mustard-tinged potato salad one night and a salad of apples, bananas and walnut pieces (not positive they were walnuts) another.

Breakfast was good.  I favored Mexican dishes such as chilaquiles and sopes, but there was always at least one omelet of the day ready-made in addition to the short-order cook who would do one to order for you. Good selection of fruits, no diet yogurt. Caroline said the pancakes were rubbery.  That’s probably another dish that doesn’t tend to do well on a steam table. My biggest grumble at breakfast was that the coffee, although delicious, was seldom hot; sometimes it was very warm, sometimes it wasn’t.

The Seafire also served lunch, but we only ate that meal there a couple of times. We favored Mexican choices such as beef with nopales.  Once we went downtown for a nostalgic visit to Cafe de Olla, and once we had a burger craving and went to the beachfront cafe. Burgers were good, brick oven pizza looked great, nachos were pathetic.

There is a sushi bar (O’West) at the rooftop pool.  Caroline thought the sushi too vinegary, I was repelled by the number of smokers. Smoking in restaurants seems so last century now.  We did most of our snacking at the Seafire.  We enjoyed the service, especially from Viktor in the mornings, and Mario and Emerson in the evenings.  Luis was new to his job, still in his first week, so he will probably grow into it by next winter. Maybe we’ll see him then, we’d like to go back.

Music & Dance

We had a good night last night, but other guests suffered; there was a big wedding on the hotel’s beachfront.  Preparations began yesterday with a gang of roadies erecting a large stage to serve as the banquet area. The first clue that loud music might last into the night were the complementary earplugs left by the maid. This morning I met a man who went entirely without sleep in his oceanfront suite. Our room has a view of the lobby’s rooftop watertank, and is as far from the beach as it is possible to get, so we didn’t hear a thing until 0500 when the wedding guests went to bed. Also, internet in the rooms costs extra, but I can pick up the free lobby wifi on our balcony. Score!

Except now my tablet refuses to connect (technically, it fails to ‘associate’, but that doesn’t suggest any course of action to me beyond gritting my teeth) so today I am blogging on my smartphone.

It was Mexican Night at the Seafire buffet restaurant last night, with a good spread.  Caroline gravitated toward the Veracruz fish, which she said was excellent, and I was pleasantly surprised by the chicken in Mole sauce.  [Note: now I’ve moved to one of the hotel’s computers for final edit and I cannot find the Character Map on the Spanish Windows menus, so you’ll have to excuse the lack of an accent on ‘Mole’.]  In my previous post about this Hilton, I said I was not getting my hopes up about the wine, but it is better than I thought it would be.  It far outshines the coarse, acidic plonk they gave us at the RIU last year, and they have a choice of at least two whites, a Chardonnay or a Sauvignon Blanc, and I think Caroline was offered a Pinot Gris once.  For red wines, there seem to be at least three; a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Merlot and a Shiraz.  All six wines are from the same South American winery, Vina Aldea, and they must buy it by the truckload, because they are not stingy with it, even though it’s free.

Anyway, there was an exhibit of ‘folkloric dancing’, which means that four engergetic young dancers whirled around for a full hour, taking breaks only for quick costume changes to represent the Mexican states of Michoacan, Sinaloa, Aguas Calientes, Chihuahua and Jalisco. I got dragged up for the Conga Line, and I cannot even use drunkenness as an excuse.  Caroline shot some video on her iPhone, but if I ever find it on You-tube, she’ll be celebrating our next anniverssary in a singles bar.

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This picture was taken on my morning walk.  Got tired of the buses, so got out on the sand today.  Much more tranquil.

Weekend in Mexico

I’m sitting by the beach in Puerto Vallarta today. We had not planned to visit Mexico this winter, but the brutal and endless cold changed our minds. Besides, it was Caroline’s birthday yesterday and our anniversary today or tomorrow, depending on how you reckon things when it is not a leap-year.

Although we have some time constraints, we found that we could come down for just a few days if we flew on WestJet, making the southbound trip via Calgary on Thursday, and returning directly to Winnipeg on Monday.  So Caroline got airline food for her birthday dinner!

The trip has been reasonably uneventful – planes were both running about quarter of an hour late.  Immigration and Customs in PVR were both free of queues.  We were a little too hasty disembarking our taxi at the Hilton, and left our one carry-on bag in the back of  the cab.  Much gnashing of Caroline’s teeth ensued, but our hotel security chief took us to review the security cam recording, enabling us to confirm that the bag was not lifted from the lobby.  A phone call to our WestJet rep resulted in the taxi returning with the overlooked bag (and a manager from the cab company).  Reunited with her tablet, her winter jacket and her Ventalin(tm), Caroline’s mood recovered.

A few words about the hotel.  Sidenote: although I am a regular contributor to Trip Advisor, I do not review hotels there, as Caroline works for a Best Western, and this might give the appearance of bias.  So on Trip Advisor, I only review restaurants and attractions.  In my blog, I comment on hotels, but I do not grade them.  Anyway, back to the Hilton in Puerto Vallarta.  Caroline likes that it’s not huge, as she is directionally challenged.  If you are looking for a place with vast pool areas and nightclubs, this is not for you.  It is an all-inclusive resort, and it is not of the same scale as say, the Riu or the Paladium.  The buffet restaurant is more modest, for instance.  On the other hand, they have not turfed me for hogging a table near the poolside to set up my tablet and blog.  I use a 12″ tablet PC (Asus Slate) with a nearly full-sized keyboard, so I stand out from the herds with their i-Pads.  This makes me look like either a serious writer or a serious dork geek.

Regular readers of my blog, and there are nearly a handful, will recall that I am prone to going for a walk in the morning.  Today, we walked down the main road as far as the Mega store, about half an hour each way.  This took us past the Villa del Palmar, a hotel we stayed at once in the past.  It has been a long time since this part of Vallarta was in the sticks, but we remember when the Pemex gas station was a temporary facility on a dirt lot with the fuel in tank-stands.  I do not have the cable to connect my phone, but I will try to remember to post a picture of the hotel’s driveway.  It is adorned with a row of fake golden boulders with just a faintly discernible face engraved on each one.  From the back, they look like baked potatoes standing on end, so I have christened the street ‘Avenida de los Papas’.

Avenue of the Baked Potatoes

Avenue of the
Baked Potatoes

Stand by for more info on the food and wine.  I do not have much hope for the latter, as all-inclusive hotels in Mexico usually have to control costs by offering modest Argentine or Chilean house wines (some kind of South American free trade agreement makes it hard for Mexican wines to compete.  If only US wines were allowed to undercut Canadian ones like that!)  The sushi  bar is supposed to be good, and that makes sense given the availability of fresh seafood here, but it makes me marvel at how small the world has become.  All food is ‘fusion food’ now.  It always was, I suppose, going back to when the Italians adopted tomatoes from the Americas.  Apparently the notion that Marco Polo brought pasta back from China is more legend than fact, or I would bang my gavel and rest my case.  But hey, Swiss Chocolate – that’s from the new world, too. Continue reading