A little afternoon Sammy.

I have lived in Calgary for about a decade now and have gone to several little Middle Eastern joints serving up (often late-night) donairs, shawarmas, falafels and more.  One place I had not yet visited is Sammy’s Shawerma on 17th Ave.  There was no particular reason, other than I never think to go because it’s an awkward street to stop being as busy as it often is.

Today I was craving a little donair and I live fairly close now so I decided I would check it out.  When I walked in, Sammy (who I quickly realized is quite a character) was on the phone. He immediately hung up and welcomed me with a huge smile on his face.  The first thing I noticed is how small the space is and the obvious lack of a flat top grill (generally used to warm the meat).  I also noticed how clean it was; everything has a place and for as small a space as it is, it is well-organized and spotless.

I ordered a regular donair for $6.99 on brown pita.  When Sammy shaved the donair meat I have to admit I was wondering how the meat would be warmed and in the panini maker it went.  I first thought that can’t be the best way to warm the meat.  But I have to say (and unexpectedly so), I think I might like this method better.  I find the meat to get really dry sometimes and I don’t know if it was the lack of the grill or what, but the meat was fantastic.  It really held in the moisture and flavour.  The pita was filled with an abundance of lettuce, tomatoes, white onions, banana peppers, pickled cabbage and pickles.   Then I was given the choice of a variety of sauces (sweet, tahini, garlic, tzatziki, hot sauce, and a spicy mustard); I chose the sweet and garlic sauces.  This was probably the best part  – so many times I find places to really cheap out on the sauces.  That doesn’t work for me because I LOVE sauce.  Sammy was incredibly generous putting it onto the pita under all the vegetables and then asking if I would like anymore on top.  When I saw him take out the pita – I thought it was a bit small for $6.99, but once you add four big slices of donair meat and pack it full of veg like he does – you definitely get your money’s worth.  Plus, instead of wrapping half the pita up like other places do – he jams them full to the edge and then wraps them up tight in parchment paper.

 

 

All in all, I really enjoyed my donair and would definitely go back.  On top of that, Sammy was really nice, smiling the whole time, he thanked me for coming in and a few times more throughout my order and our brief conversation.  When there’s a million corporate crappy places to eat – I will be happy to support this guy again.

 

Sammy's Shawerma on Urbanspoon

An 80th & Ivy experience.

80th & Ivy, one of the newest restaurants to grace the Calgary food scene opened recently and I have had two opportunities to check it out so far.

I will admit that when I heard it was the owners of Classic Jacks & 1410 I was immediately turned off.  The above combination is like being admitted into a circus – a constant exercise in bad service, mediocre food and more douche bags in one (or two) spaces, then you ever thought possible.  And for the love of god, stop asking my name and shaking my hand.  It’s awkward (especially when you give that limp handshake), unnecessary and insulting when it’s clear the server or bartender has neither any desire nor intention to remember it.

Anyways back to the point.  On my first visit – I was convinced by a friend to go and check it out for a casual bite to eat mid-week.  It had been open for a couple of weeks, so I thought why not.  We started with the seared tuna and watermelon salad.  The tuna was fantastic, perfectly seasoned and seared.  It was however, by no means a salad.  There were maybe 4 or 5 pea shoots to speak of, which does not a salad make.  There were no blood oranges, only navel (which is unfortunate because it was one of the reasons that I chose that salad), and grilling the watermelon made the texture like old, overripe watermelon that has been sitting out in the sun at a picnic too long.  In saying that, had the tuna been served as an appetizer with the pea shoots, the vinaigrette and some fresh shaved watermelon – I would eat it again in a second.  For our main course, we split the sharing board entrée (which I no longer see on the menu).  It was $60.00 for a healthy piece ribeye, half of a rotisserie chicken and the rotisserie meat of the day, which was porchetta; along with two sides – for which we chose the brussel sprouts with lardons and maple drizzle as well as the charred broccolini with Kalamata feta.  For the price (even though Calgary in general is SO over-priced for dining out), it was a steal of a deal.  The meat portions were generous for two people and the vegetable helpings on the side were definitely enough for four.  The meat, I have to say was perfectly cooked.  The chicken was some of the best I’ve had in years and definitely in Calgary as of late.  The porchetta makes Boxwood (who apparently does this really well) look amateur at best and the ribeye literally melted in your mouth.  Regardless of anything else, whoever was in that kitchen definitely knew his/her meat!  The brussel sprouts were nicely cooked, but had WAY too much maple syrup.  It was so overpowering, I could have been eating waffles and wouldn’t have known the difference.  The broccolini was great, as I find it has a ton of natural flavour.  The feta didn’t need to be there, it did nothing to the dish other than made it seem a bit more dry than it was as there was no moisture, olive oil drizzle or fresh lemon or anything to speak of.  Our server was fine, not good, not bad.  She was attentive enough for the most part, but really knew nothing about the food or wine that she was serving.

The second time I went was for a brief afternoon bite with a friend.  It was late afternoon, so the lunch rush was long over.  We sat outside with the other 4 tables (there was no one in the restaurant).  My friend was already there when I arrived, so when I sat down the server came right over to offer me a drink.  That was the last time that we would see her again, without having to ask her to come over.  We sat and chatted, while waiting for our server to come back to take our food order.  With only 5 tables in the entire place and all in one spot, this should have taken a minute or two (especially when we had the menus closed and at the edge of the table).  About 15 minutes goes by before we see her and ask her if we can order.  We ordered the Ivy salad and prawn rolls to share.  The salad, I don’t really know what to say – it should NOT be on that menu.  The rest of the food at least seems as if some effort and creativity went into it.  This salad is something I would whip up at home with all the crap that’s leftover in my fridge and it would probably still be better. Honestly the cobb salad that Classic Jacks serves is much better, and that’s saying something. The lettuce was browning and wilted and we spent quite a bit of time picking those pieces out.  There was three measly pieces of roasted red pepper and 5 or 6 huge chunks of heirloom tomatoes, that looked like the tomatoes were just ripped in half and thrown in the bowl.  They were also flavorless, which is not a common trait of true heirlooms.  There was a good portion of pulled chicken, almost no bacon at all and very little dressing.  Needles to say the entire salad was a fail, it had no flavour – nothing had been seasoned at all including the dressing.  When we finally saw our server we called her over (again), our brown pieces of lettuce were sitting on a plate and we asked her if we could have an extra side of dressing, salt and pepper – that should clue even the worst server that something is wrong. But, nope – she was as oblivious as could be.  The prawns were decent, the price and the size of the dish were great and worth it for that reason alone, but the prawns themselves were uninspiring and boring like prawns usually are.  The grilled pineapple coulis was a well-balanced, flavorful sauce and would have been a great addition to the dish except there was a heaping pile of fried greens (as garnish), that soaked all the sauce up before we could dip the prawns in it.  Too bad, I might have enjoyed them more.

Besides the food at this particular visit, the service was atrocious.  With five tables at the busiest moment, our server was hurried, unorganized and inattentive.  We basically had to politely flag her down (which I hate doing) and ask her for everything we needed; including getting up and going inside to get our bill after we sat there for 20 minutes waiting for it.  Walking inside was the icing on the cake.  Both owners, three (what looked like) managers, a bartender, another server and two other people were mindlessly floating around the front of the restaurant while our server clearly could not handle her tables.  So either all these people were too pre-occupied to notice she was crashing, the server felt like she couldn’t ask for help, and/or they all simply didn’t care.  I’ve worked in the industry so I get that between the hours of 2 and 5 PM, you clean, get organized, taste wines, try food, have staff meetings, manager meetings, etc… BUT, if you’re going to be open to the public then you need to have staff designated to your customers at that time – plain and simple.

As far as the atmosphere, I sat on the patio both times so I can’t say much about it but the design of the room and the open concept dining should create  some pretty decent ambiance.  The design and decor were simple, inviting,  fairly modern with a little vintage twist.  And, the bathrooms which a lot of establishments forget about were really quite nice.

The one last thing that I will say is about their payment structure.  I fully understand not accepting debit in a bar, i.e. Classic Jacks & 1410.  But this is a restaurant, and apparently trying to be a nice one.  Not accepting debit, where let’s be honest it’s not fining dining but the prices aren’t too casual either, is just tacky and cheap.  I hadn’t noticed the first time because I paid cash, but sure enough there is an ATM that charges $3.00 right smack at the front entrance.  That’s just bad business and in very poor taste.

All in all, I would try eating there again to give them a fair shake because I think the food could be worth it.  Unfortunately the service and the ATM, which both scream Classic Jacks don’t warrant the effort.

 

80th & Ivy Wine Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Anju, where have you been all my Calgary life?

I am so excited to write my first review giving you the dirt on dining out in Calgary.  The restaurant  chosen – Anju Restaurant and Eecha Lounge.

So, where do I start?  Well, I mind as well just give it you straight.  I heard about this place a couple times over the last six months from a random person or two in passing, plus one not so random person whose opinion to be totally honest I don’t generally listen to.  See, we are very different people – he the name dropper type; me the quiet wait in line even if I know everyone that works there type.  Nonetheless, I never discount trying new food at a new restaurant – it’s like my crack.  Only thing, this restaurant wasn’t all that new.  Turns out it’s been around for approximately two years.  Where have I been, hidden under a rock?  I clearly need to get out more often.

Anyways, I finally had a night off and decided to check it out; and to my disappointment it was a Sunday (pretty much my only day off if that) and it was closed.  No big deal, I’ll go in a few months on my next day off – sad I know.  I made a reservation on a Wednesday evening for 8:30 PM, later than normal but I had a busy day and my dinner date is a night owl so 8:30 PM is like normal people having dinner at 3:30 PM.   We arrived to find this cute little heritage looking house – a good start.

We went in and, I have to say the set-up from the front was a little awkward, (not shocking as it was a house at some point) but the host(ess) stand sat right at the front door, which was also very hidden from the actual restaurant.  As we walked in at about twenty after eight, a family of six and a couple sat waiting.  We stuffed ourselves in a corner out of the way and waited for the host(ess) to come and greet us.  We waited, and waited, and waited; about 20 or so minutes went by and nothing – huh, we both thought.  But, we were determined to stay.  Why you might ask?  Well because in that 20 minutes of waiting we did have a menu in hand and our mouths were watering, jaws wide open.  We weren’t about to walk away, and good thing because right at that moment – a young gentleman came up and greeted the guests in front and behind us.  I felt as though we were invisible that night, however we’re not really the pushy type so we quietly said excuse me let him know we had a reservation and within a minute or so we were sat at a able just around the corner in front of the kitchen.

You might think, from the start of this review that it was going to be another disappointing dining experience…you’d be wrong.  In fact, the rest of our dinner was SO great – to be honest, I could have cared less about waiting at the door.  On top of that, our server, who ended up being pretty fantastic was working obviously shorthanded with an expected party upstairs, so I’ll cut the guy a break.

Are you getting antsy?  Ok, more talk about food.  To begin we had a dozen oysters with kimchi vinaigrette and the spicy Broeck Farms pork belly tacos. Oysters are oysters, of course some are better than others but the kimchi vinaigrette that accompanied them was amazing.  It had just the perfect amount of heat, tang and spice.  The pork belly tacos were nothing short of amazing.  The pork belly was perfectly cooked, crispy just on the outside and melt in your mouth on the inside.  The asian slaw had a nice mix of sour, sweet and spice with a gochujang aioli to add – and we did, a lot. Seriously, if I could have ensured no one was watching, I think we both would have drank it out of the ramekin it was in.  Gochujang, if you’ve never had it is a fairly traditional Korean condiment (made primarily out of  red chili powder, glutinous rice powder, fermented soybean and salt); and it is incredibly flavourful.   Next up we were really looking forward to the braised oxtail tortellini, and to our grumbling stomach’s disappointment they were out.  I guess that means I’ll just have to go back again.  So instead, after the server described an item neither of us would ever have chosen – the crispy tofu with sauteed kimchi and citrus aioli; I have to tell you from the passionate description alone – we were sold.  And…thank goodness for that.  Being a meat lover I really had no interest in it and if I ate there a hundred times I would probably still never have ordered it.  But, it was literally an explosion of flavour and texture in your mouth, not to mention colour on the plate.  The tofu cubes lightly dusted in a breading with a little lemon pepper seasoning were crispy on the outside and held their weight  on the inside. For something I really have no interest in eating, they were little bites of deliciousness!

Finally after a little break, (filled with wine of course) we had our last two savoury items – the calamari with kafir lime and citrus aioli along with the Korean style marinated steak with fingerling potatoes.  Maybe the only real disappointment in the meal was the calamari and not because it wasn’t good, just because it wasn’t any different or any better than your average breaded and fried calamari.  The steak however was as tasty as can be, and to go with it – the fingerling potatoes were perfectly cooked with a dipping sauce of some sort on the side.  I can’t remember for the life of me what it was other than it was heaven in a little cup.

Then, after all that we decided (even though neither of us are really dessert people) to try the black sesame crème bruleé.  Wow – it was unlike anything we had ever had and it was really really good.  The nice sugary crust  with the addition of the toasted black sesame seeds sent it to at least a step above your regular bruleé.  An all around pretty sweet finish to what was truly one of the most flavorful, fun, creative meals I have maybe ever had; at least over the last five years.

I think the only criticism that some might have, is possibly that the citrus aioli, gochujang paste and kimchi are overused.  Honestly, I could see that and at first bite the thought crossed my mind.  However, they are used so differently in each of the dishes they take part in – I think the Chef actually does a phenomenal job of reusing similar or same ingredients.

<a href=”http://www.urbanspoon.com/r/15/1414917/restaurant/Downtown/Anju-Restaurant-Eecha-Lounge-Calgary”><img alt=”Anju Restaurant &amp; Eecha Lounge on Urbanspoon” src=”http://www.urbanspoon.com/b/logo/1414917/minilogo.gif&#8221; style=”border:none;width:104px;height:15px” /></a>

An introduction to the dirt on dining out…

Hello Calgary and welcome to the dirt on dining out.  I have a true passion for food and wine and the dining experience as a whole.  I am always on the lookout for new restaurants, cafes, and other food induced activities and thought I might be able to share with you a little bit of my food fun and a lot of my food opinion.

So, I will start my first blog and introduction with an observation and in a way a question to set the stage for what kind of dirt you can expect to read about.

To get the ball rolling – I have worked in  a service oriented job my whole life in some way or another so I believe I have a pretty good idea of what good service is and how to give it; and here’s the thing – it’s not that hard.  Most often it requires a smile, an ear and a little genuine effort.  During the ‘boom’ in Calgary – dining out was interesting to say the least.  For a couple of years there I was starting to feel like I should stop going out until the pending recession, because restaurants seemed to quickly get a little too high on themselves.  So many people joining our great city in so little time meant an unexpected influx of diners which, equaled restaurants seeming to feel as though they didn’t have to care as much as they did before about providing a great experience.  On the food side of things it became normal to get average or often below average food at best.  Couple that with service (if you could even call it that) that would sink a business nowadays and you have a very unsatisfying dining experience.  But the kicker?  We all went out anyways.

I realize with the ‘boom’ came a huge shortage on labour, especially in service type positions; and I remember feeling no different from anyone else – just happy to get food and service at all, never mind good food and service.  So here we are just a few short years later and I feel like Calgary as a city has excepted average and below as the norm when it comes to dining out.  Now, don’t get me wrong – we have some fantastic restaurants in this city (that are often forgotten) that really get that dining out isn’t just about the food, the room or the service.  It’s about everything.  I just feel like there are so many restaurants that receive unjustified praise because we’ve all been brainwashed into thinking average is awesome!  On top of that if everything is considered great, what happens to the people and places that really deserve to shine? Well, they get buffed out by all the mediocrity.

Come on Calgary, are our expectations really this low?  We work hard to live in this great city, so when spending our limited time and our hard-earned money at someone’s dining establishment – don’t we deserve to expect the best?

I believe there are other factors too – like having ONE main food critic in town (one of the reasons I wanted to start this blog).  And, not just one food critic, but one food critic that everybody knows and is prepared for when he happens to grace the restaurant with his presence, because the restaurants are told ahead of time.  I guess I just think that the average diner might not experience quite the same treatment.

So, to conclude:  my goal here is to give you real, honest information about my experiences as an average joe dining out in our great city and whatever other city I might happen to be visiting throughout my life.

Happy eating.

 

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