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Last week Cokebaby and I treated ourselves to dinner and a movie up in Bayer’s Lake. While I mostly go for vegetarian fare when I’m cooking for myself or going out to restaurants there are exceptions. And, truthfully, they mostly come in burger form. This time I tried out Señor Jack’s Jalapeño Burger from Jack Astor’s with a side garden salad (who can resist the curly rings of pickled beets, huge croûtons, and blackberry dressing?). Best. Burger. Ever. There was just enough of a spicy kick, complimented with a sweet pickle relish. I was in burger heaven, oblivious to all the cows giving me stink-eye.

Official movie poster

Official movie poster

But the meal wasn’t even the best part of the night. It was the movie Slumdog Millionaire (which took home a whole bunch of Oscars last night). As the title of this post oh-so-subtly suggests, this isn’t a critique of the film in any way, shape, or form. Except, that is, to say you should probably go see this film if you haven’t already. And if you have, well, you know what I mean.

Oh, also, you have to watch this end credit sequence. And, finally, I want the yellow scarf that Latika wears with a white t-shirt and jeans. It’s the must have fashion accessory of the season IMHO.

We went into the movie not knowing very much about it besides the praise of friends (and seemingly the world). I didn’t even realize it was based on a book originally published as Q & A by Vikas Swarup (HarperCollins). Being a bookworm, it brought to mind a few good reads I’ve picked up over the course of the past few years. So, if you enjoy(ed) the movie and want to read books that are similar, check out these titles:

The Song of Kahunsha by Anosh Irani (Doubleday)—Upon hearing that the orphanage that has cared for him since he was an infant is to be torn down by land developers, Chamdi runs away in search of his father. The sheltered world that he leaves behind is a far cry from the streets of Bombay. It’s a world of violence and destitution. But he meets two street children who take him under their wing. Together they scrape by and search for a means to escape poverty.

Shining Hero by Sara Banerji (HarperCollins)—A well-to-do adolescent girl is charmed by a Bollywood star passing through her village. Nine months later she is horrified to discover she’s giving birth to a baby that she subsequently sends down-river. The infant boy, Karna, is discovered by a woman desperate for a child of her own and who takes him in as her own. But fortunes turn quickly and soon he is forced to seek out his birth mother who has since married and had another child.

The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswanathan (Random House)—Inspired by her own family’s history, the author creates a fictional tale of a child-bride who is soon widowed. According to the rules of her caste she must live out much of the rest of her life like a ghost: wearing white, and from dawn to dusk she is not permitted to contaminate herself with human touch, not even to comfort her small children. Her son grows up to reject the principles of caste and welcomes the ways of a modern India, eventually causing a rift between them.

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (Random House)—Shifting between 1969 and 1993, this is the story of fraternal twins growing up in the state of Kerala. It’s a complex book that captures a lot of interesting points about the period, such as the Communism movement, the caste system, and the Syrian Christian way of life. The author also uses Malayalam words throughout which adds to the richness of the book.

So, there you have it. A few extras to take away after you’ve seen the movie. Do you have any recommendations for books, music, or films to go with Slumdog Millionaire?

P.S. I’m also loving the movie soundtrack.

No, it’s not the sushi. And for me, that’s saying a lot. Those of you who know me in real life know that I love sushi. I could probably eat it every day and not be tired of it.

But this winter, I’ve been hooked on a menu item that most people don’t even look at when visiting the umpteen million sushi restaurants that abound in the city of Halifax. I’m talking about the meal in a bowl: udon/soba noodles.

We’ve been hit with a pretty brutal winter with wind chill factors that I’ve mostly seen further west of here. And frankly, there’s nothing better for it than to sit down to a giant bowl of hearty soup. And the varieties are plenty. Up until recently my favourite was the vegetable tempura variety.

From valvados on Flickr

From valvados on Flickr

One night I got adventurous and tried out something even better: nabeyaki udon. And I’ve been on a kick ever since. Nabeyaki udon is basically a personal size Japanese hot-pot topped with tempura shrimp, an egg, and a variety of other ingredients. Every restaurant has their own concoction. My personal favourite is from Milamodo (because I love fried tofu) but Doraku and Sushi Shige make a pretty mean bowl of it, too.

Honestly, I can’t think of anything better to warm and fill you up on a cold winter’s day. And, as an additional bonus, your friends sitting across the table from you will envy you your gastronomical prowess. That, I can almost guarantee.

[Love Twitter and sushi? Well, look out Halifax 'cause here comes Twushi. Due to the snow storm, the event was postponed from last night to next week. Check out the Halifax Tweetup page for more details on this and other Twitter related events.]

Remember the scene in The Simpsons where Homer is daydreaming about the land of chocolate? Well, that was me in the south of France only it was with foie gras. Um, wait a second. That sounds kind of gross on a lot of levels. Well, even though I only had it twice in the nine days we were in France, it was equally as glorious as it was horrendous. But, like they say, when in Rome do like…Hedonismbot.

Here are some gastronomical highlights from the trip:

cwbuecheler from Flickr

Photo credit: cwbuecheler from Flickr

Picnics—By far, our favourite thing to do when travelling in Europe is checking out the fresh local produce and putting together meals to go. In Nice, we frequented the Cours Saleya Market & Monoprix, while in Avignon we enjoyed the offerings at Les Halles & 8 à Huit. Things we looked for included sundried tomatoes, olives Niçoise or en herbes de Provence, fresh baked bread, and, of course, fabulous cheeses. Whatever you do in France, if there’s an open display of cheeses that aren’t pre-packaged, for goodness sake don’t touch anything. In Paris, Cokebaby got his hand slapped for reaching out. Just remember, cheese is like a religion here. Don’t sully the alter. There are also plenty of pâtisseries and chocolatiers to go around for dessert.

Wines of the region are rosé and Côtes du Rhône which you can purchase for incredibly reasonable prices. Even champagne is dirt cheap here. For special treats we tried Muscat de Beaumes de Venise (a sweet fortified wine) and pastis (an anise-flavoured liqueur usually served on ice with a pitcher of water that you can use to cut it to your liking). In Nice, we found a great wine shop called Côté Vin where the young shopkeep was keen to speak English and gave us some great recommendations for local (and organic) wines of the region without an ounce of pretension.

Le Atmosphere (Nice)—On opera night, we tried finding a recommended restaurant called Chez Palmyre. Finding no signs of life there on that night (or any other) we wound up on the very touristy Cours Saleya Strip where we were reeled in by an employee. Yes, yes, tourist trap antics. But we were running late and it was literally a two minute walk from the opera house. We went with the formule which got us a starter, main, and dessert for 13,50€. Each of us had a fish soup (served with croutons and rouille), grilled sword fish with roasted vegetables in rice. For dessert I had a creme caramel while Cokebaby opted for chocolate mousse. For the price, service, and quality of food we weren’t disappointed.

Maison Nani (Avignon)—We kind of hit the jackpot with this little gem of a restaurant. The atmosphere is warm and homey, the service impeccable, and the food was everything we wanted it to be (and then some).  On our first day, we arrived close to the end of lunch service so we missed out on the specials but after our meal we vowed to come back early to check them out. Both days the place was filled with locals and the owners were around greeting everyone personally. Our meals ranged around 8-12€ and you could purchase a 75cL Cotes du Rhone wine for about 4€. The wine came in unmarked bottles that brought the term house wine to new meaning but who can argue for the value? I indulged in a foie gras salad served with toast. Simple but delicious. For dessert I couldn’t resist the café gourmand: a cup of espresso with a sampling of Chantilly cream, a cake that tasted like homemade Ferrero Rocher, crème anglaise, and a raspberry crumble for under 4€. On the next visit, I was very happy to get the special tart of the day made with broccoli, onions and olives, with a side salad, and vegetables (potato salad, cucumbers, tomatoes, mustard fennel, lightly salted and boiled string beans).

jenny downing from Flickr

Photo credit: jenny downing from Flickr

O’Neill’s (Avignon)—At supper time many of the restaurants along the main strip were closed, we assumed, due to it being low season. Back alleys turned up international cuisine for very reasonable prices. It probably would have made some sense to have Chinese food for the lunar new year but, frankly, we didn’t come to France for the Chinese food. So, we stopped in at O’Neill’s Irish pub. Um, yeah, that didn’t make much sense, right? The thing is they had a bunch of French items on the menu. While Cokebaby enjoyed his pizza Alsace (ham, olives, mushrooms and Emmenthal) and pint of Kronenbourg blanc, I was happy to receive the yummiest (and biggest) salade Niçoise with a goblet full of vin chaud (aka Glögg or mulled wine).

Le Courtois Café/Pâtisseries (Nîmes)—A family-run business since 1892, this gorgeous spot is situated in the same courtyard as a palm-tree and crocodile fountain (the city’s emblem). The dining room had crammed seating but elegant Old World decor. Cokebaby and I felt like the veritable bulls in a china shop and if the weather had been a bit warmer we probably would have enjoyed the experience more on the patio. That said, the food was delicious and the service both pleasant and efficient. This was my second and last foie gras salad. Not quite as delicious as the first but it came with a tasty side of scalloped potatoes. Cokebaby’s poulet Basquaise (chicken served in a clay pot with peppers and smoky spices) was not the most memorable meal but he enjoyed it nonetheless. On the way out we passed the display case of pastries and, although incredibly tempting (and probably where they excelled in terms of food), we passed them up in order to move on to the sites of the city.

Restaurant du Gesù (Nice)—This was a quaint little Italian restaurant situated at a cobblestone square across from a church. We opted to dine outside in the enclosed patio next to a heat lamp. The food here was simplicity at its best. We shared plates of gnocchi (potato pasta) with Gorgonzola, and ravioli with pistou (basically, pesto without the pine nuts). On the blackboard they had featured a wine of the month which we tried out for 14€ (this time it came in a corked and labelled bottle). By the time we were served our meal the place was packed with locals and students.

********

Our last day in Nice was spent trying to cram in as much food and drink into our faces before we had to fly back. We had croissants, café crème, wine, cheese, beer, pastries, and more. By the end of the night I was wholly and truly satisfied that I could indulge no more. Thankfully, vacations do have to come to an end sometimes. Otherwise, I’d be the size of an elephant. That or I’d have to take up smoking as an appetite suppressant which I’m convinced is the only way everyone stays so thin in France. Kidding..!

I’m not by any means a culture vulture. At least by some standards. Sure, I like watching some indie or foreign films, am passionate about world food and wines, listen to a wide variety of music, and am fairly well travelled. That all being said, when it comes to things like ballet or opera performances my experience is pretty limited. By that I mean mostly through secondary school field trips. (For the record that’s a long time ago).

It’s not that I don’t enjoy these types of cultural experiences. It’s mostly because a good deal of my adult (and therefore able to afford things) life has been spent in a small city. Frankly, since moving here it seems to me that the options are fairly limited and I’m not about to repeat the brutally uncomfortable experience at the Halifax Metro Centre when we went to see the Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo with Cokebaby’s family and accidentally heard some beautiful opera performed by Measha Brueggergosman.

In fact, outside of that experience, one of the few others I’ve had with opera is through a very small collection at home that includes safe bets like Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman. However, on our trip to Italy last year we made it to The Barber of Seville at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice and were so amazed that we wanted to repeat the experience. It was an opulent opera house and overall wonderful performance which I enjoyed immensely despite undergoing the early stages of a sinus infection that would make the flight home almost unbearable.

At the market

At the Cours Saleya Market

This is all to say that we had some high expectations of the Opera de Nice on our recent trip to southern France. So, on our first day on vacation we took in a day of walking around Old Nice, stopping by the opera house to find out that all the main tickets were sold out and that we’d have to come back at 16:30 (not 6:30 as I almost made the mistake) to purchase last minute tickets in the upper tier. It was to be expected so instead of being disappointed we spent the rest of the morning touring through the market stands where we picked up some souvenirs and the best sun-dried tomatoes ever made.

Eventually we made it back to the opera house where I’m pretty sure I asked the ticket agent in French if he wanted two seats at the opera. To his credit he didn’t laugh at me and continued to converse in French without switching to English. As the assigned seating was sold out he lamented that the only tickets available presented poor to no visibility. But they were also only 8€ each.

From where we were seated we could see only part of the stage and that was only when standing. Although there was an overhead with captions to follow, that too was half obscured. It seemed that I understand all but every fifth word but it also seemed that every fifth word was the most important.

The opera itself was one that we’d not heard of: Les Contes d’Hoffman. Not Le Comte Hoffman as we originally thought while listening to the performance. A somewhat important distinction. You see, one of the main characters sounded like he was the Count from Sesame Street and every time he entered the stage with that distinctive laugh I thought we were about to get a lesson in French numbers (which actually would have at least been educational in some way). The unmistakable laugh only further confused my understanding of what was going on because I naturally assumed he was “Count” Hoffman when, in fact, he was actually the “nemesis” Lindorf.

From the set of Les Contes d'Hoffman

From the set of Les Contes d'Hoffman

Then, at some point—no word of a lie—a giant baby’s head emerged on the stage. For a little while it was all we could look at. We were transfixed and beyond perplexed and losing the plot line with every passing second that we weren’t paying close attention to the words or overhead.

That’s when it got really weird. A bald-headed robotic woman sprang out of the head. All bets were off at that point. It felt like we were watching a live-action episode of The Simpsons. I imagined Lenny and Carl standing by the enormous tête asking, “Ain’t you never seen a bald chick leap out of a giant head before?”

Even after the automaton proceeded to sing the very beautiful aria, Les Oiseaux Dans La Charmille, we couldn’t put the oddness out of our minds. Yet we persevered.

Then, the stage was flooded with identical blind couples tapping their way with white canes across the stage. By the time Act II came along Cokebaby and I were entirely lost.

Apparently there was an Act III but we never saw it.

For us, the opera didn’t end when the fact lady sang. In fact, there was no fat lady at all. And maybe in the absence of one, it ends when the bald chick leaps out of the giant head. I’ll have to test that theory out on our next operatic excursion.

[Wolfville is one of my favourite places to visit in the province. So, I have to admit it was really hard for me to read this post because I don't need any convincing that it's also a great place to live. If only I had a driver's license...But I digress. If you haven't been to Wolfville, you seriously need to drop what you're doing and go there right now.]

By Chris Campbell

For some reason it was cloudy every day we went house hunting in Windsor. I accepted a job offer to work in the birthplace of hockey and had given my notice in Fredericton. We needed to find a place to live when we moved to Nova Scotia from New Brunswick in June of 2000. It wasn’t an easy decision as I’d grown up in Fredericton, went to school, worked and learned to make films with my friends at the NB Filmmakers’ Co-operative.

Lured by the challenges of a new media startup in rural Nova Scotia, the decision was made to move me, my partner Carolyn and our three children to a relatively unknown future in the Annapolis Valley. Searching for a house (our first house) is a challenge, but doing so remotely is even harder. We found a real estate agent and began our quest. Two days were set aside to find a place and on the first day it wasn’t going well as everything seemed either too small or too run down and we didn’t see the sun at all. For the second day our agent suggested we expand the search to include more of the surround areas such as Wolfville and Kentville.

Chris Campbell from Flickr

Photo credit: Chris Campbell from Flickr

On day two we drove down the highway from our motel in Windsor to Wolfville. The sun broke through the clouds as we came over the hill before the Gaspereau River. We saw Blomidon and the Minas Basin spread out before us and we said “wow” and knew that this was going to be the place. We liked most of the houses we saw and found one that fit within our budget and much paperwork and administrative costs later, we owned it.

We were happy with the house and being relatively close to where we were going to be working and to live in such a beautiful place. The kids could walk to school and the neighbourhood was quiet and peaceful. But we didn’t really know much about Wolfville, so we began to explore our new home. The first pleasant surprise was the Just Us! Coffee roasters in Grand Pré. I had been enjoying the coffee for a while and now lived just down the road and would smell the roasting coffee on the way to work.

Things got even better when Just Us! opened a café downtown in Wolfville in the Acadia Theatre building, which had closed just before we arrived. The café was part of a co-operative established to restore the theatre and after a few years the Fundy Film Society was screening great films that I wanted to see in the Al Whittle Theatre (in recognition of Al, who ran the theatre for almost half a century). To supplement the big screen films is the video rental store Light & Shadow, which has an eclectic collection of films to rival any large rental chain.

There are great restaurants and Paddy’s Pub, where they brew delicious beer and often feature talented local musicians from the surrounding area in the evenings. The town is filled with music and art from the bars and restaurants to the theatre to the Saturday morning farmers’ market with live music accompanying the diverse food and crafts for sale.

Wolfville is a progressive town with a wonderful lack of fast food chains and a commitment to environmental responsibility with anti-smoking and anti-idling (for cars) initiatives. As you walk around the town and through the walking trails you’ll be greeted with smiles as it’s a very friendly place. Even though I work in Dartmouth and need to commute during the school year, I love the balance that Wolfville has struck between work and life with nature and essential things such as good food and drink, good films, and a strong sense of community. Wolfville is a wonderful town that I’m proud to choose as my home.

Chris is a long-time media creator with a keen interest in combining storytelling with new technologies in film, video, audio and the web. During the day he teaches Screen Arts at the Nova Scotia Community College in Halifax with an emphasis on producing and post production. He’s also taught workshops in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Bermuda. In the past he’s edited a feature-length documentary film about the end of segregation in Bermuda, shot video, recorded sound, hosted radio and TV shows, made web sites, and served on several arts boards and juries, including the NB Filmmakers’ Co-operative. In his spare time at home in Wolfville Chris writes on the web at bitdepth.org, shares photos on Flickr, and microblogs on Twitter.

Veggie Plate

Veggie Plate

A short while ago we checked out SnauBar Lebanese Cuisine to celebrate the new job of Cokebaby’s brother.

The restaurant is located in the Dresden Row mall (the one with Pete’s Frootique). Originally, there were rumours that a second location of Kababji was going to open up in the spot but I guess plans fell through.

SnauBar, pronounced snowbar, means pine (according to my Lebanese in-law who was with us that night). The name itself is a fun play on the word and the greenish mosaic tiled back-splash behind bar emphasizes it. The interior is elegant enough with pretty murals in archways along the walls. However, there’s something about the stark white of just about everything else that made the place seem kind of sterile. It certainly doesn’t have the the same luxe feel of Mezza Restaurant but I’m in a fight with that particular establishment right now.

We were the only people in the place and, in a way, it was fortunate for us as the server was not exactly on his game. That said, he was pleasant and had the legitimate excuse that he had only been working there for a few days. While there were ample choices for cold and hot mezza to share we decided to start with appetizers for the group of six and then move on to individual main courses. (As a side note, the website boasts “Mezza & Arrak Tuesdays” but there was no sign of what that meant when we arrived. And, yes, it was Tuesday.)

For drinks, I started with the  SnauBar-Tini (Pears vodka, white cranberry juice & lime cordial) followed by a glass of Villa Mura Valpollicello with the meal. The martini was very yummy while the wine was pretty mediocre and, in retrospect, a glass of white would have gone down better with the meal.

For appetizers we shared: chicken livers (served with pomegranate molasses), kebbeh (cracked wheat and ground beef, stuffed with more meat, onions, and pinenuts), and frogs provincial (fried frog legs served with garlic, cilantro, and lemon juice). Prices ranged between $6-10 each.

It was all very tasty but the livers were a bit dry and the promise of pomegranate molasses was lost on our palates. It was a first for me in terms of the frog legs and I’d be willing to try them again. The idea that they’re anything like chicken is completely misleading though. While they have the texture of poultry, they’re actually moister, and the taste is quite mild.

The special on the menu is described as: “A homemade Lebanese meal. Prepared fresh daily.” What it fails to mention is that it’s just something off the menu, or at least it was in this case, rather than a special dish made by the chef for that day. Most of the in-laws went with the special which turned out to be chicken taouk (marinated chicken breast with garlic and Lebanese spices).

I opted for the veggie plate (grape leaves, veggie kebbe, falafel, and spinach fatayer) and Cokebaby had the lamb shawarma (grilled sliced lamb with garlic and shawarma sauce). I found the falafel a bit dry but otherwise everything else on the plate was devoured appreciatively.

All the mains were served with the choices of rice or potatoes, AND tabbouleh or fattoush salads, AND hummus (chickpea dip) or baba ganouj (roast eggplant dip). Prices ranged between $14-19 each. The meal was delicious and quite filling. Everything was also clearly fresh made. Another bonus is that most of their produce is organic.

Overall, while SnauBar isn’t quite the upscale restaurant that it seems to want to be (and they could have been a bit more generous with the pita bread), the food is tasty and reasonably priced for a nice meal out. Each couple spent between $50-70 before tip and that included at least one alcoholic beverage each.

Compared with Mezza Restaurant the food is about equal but the atmosphere isn’t quite as upscale or warm. However, it does win points for the service which is at least passable and friendly, and the food made it to the table without an arduous wait which is more than I can say for my previous experiences with Mezza. Did I mention that I’m not happy with the level of service at Mezza?

The scenic view from Fiesole

The scenic view from Fiesole

In April of 2008, Cokebaby and I travelled to Italy with his sister and her husband. While there we had a lovely dining experience at a place called Il Latino in Florence.

Each year for the holidays we traditionally have a “luxe” meal with our in-laws slash travel companions. This year we attempted to recreate the meal with the help of a couple bottles of wine that we received courtesy of the restaurateur of Il Latino himself.

Thanks to the international and high-end produce selections at Pete’s Frootique, we were able to find the ingredients required and we were able to bring the tastes of Tuscany right to our dining room table.

Now, I may be a foodie, but I’m not one for overcomplicated dishes that require fine knife skills, knowing how to use a double-boiler and juggling. In recent years I’ve found that the good folks at Epicurious.com have an excellent database of gourmet but fairly straightforward to prepare recipes. Coupled with Food Network shows, Cokebaby and I have been able to put together some yummy meals without breaking a sweat.

Here’s what we pulled together for our “luxe” dinner this year with recipe links (where applicable) included.

Antipasto

These items were served as sharing plates along with high quality olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping:

Prosciutto
Bruschetta
Sliced tomatoes
Bocconcini
Marinated artichoke hearts
Olives stuffed with garlic

Primo
We couldn’t decide between the two dishes so we opted for two small portions of each:
Tuscan white bean soup
Wild boar ragu on penne pasta

Secondo
Bistecca alla Fiorentina (Florentine style steak). Here Cokebaby actually roasted prime rib in the oven using this recipe.

Contorno (side dish)
Roasted new potatoes (in the pan with the steak).

Dolce
Sparkling muscat wine
Chocolate hazelnut cake (we cheated and just bought this from Sobey’s Compliment brand)

Digestivo
Choice of Limoncello or Amaretto

We could barely move after the feast but it was a great night that brought back memories of a trip that seems so far off already.

What are some of your holiday traditions? Anything that encourages a New Year’s resolution to diet? I don’t know about you but most of the holidays involved eating in excess.

Ten years and counting

Ten years and counting

Today marks the 10th year Cokebaby and I tied the knot on a sandy beach in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. Recently when I’ve mentioned the impending date, it’s been greeted with surprise. I’m not sure if it’s because of our age or the length of the marriage.

We’re both still under 35 but we weren’t THAT young when we got married. And the divorce rate in Canada is around 37% which isn’t as bad as some countries where more people are likely to divorce than stay married.

In any case, the conversation usually also turns around to what’s the secret behind staying committed to the relationship. And really, I don’t think I have a magic answer. All I can say is that, like every couple, we’ve had our ups and downs. I think it mostly comes down to: don’t sweat the small stuff because when the big things come along you’ll need the strength to work it out.

To celebrate (or as an excuse to travel) we’ll be taking an anniversary trip at the end of the month to the south of France. That is, if Air Canada doesn’t screw around with us too badly; they just informed us that they’ve redirected our flight through Toronto (instead of direct to London) which means we have to make changes to our connecting flight and add several excruciating hours to our travel time. But that’s for another post. Tonight, it’s dinner at one of our favourite fine dining establishments in the city: Seven Wine Bar.

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