Archive for April, 2010

Chianti Cafe & Restaurant has been a fixture on Whyte Avenue since slightly after the last ice age ended. Or was it since the Oilers were a good team? I don’t really remember.  I do know the last time I was there was sometime in the early naughts (2001 perhaps). At that time, we went because I’d been given a gift certificate by the Edmonton Celiac Association in appreciation for work I’d done on the Cycling for Celiacs website. That year, Chianti was a sponsor of the ride and they had donated some gift certificates.

Almost 10 years is a long time in the restaurant business, so prior to arriving, I checked the Chianti website to verify they were still offering gluten free options and they are:

Casual, bustling, Italian, we’re a “from scratch” restaurant so all our dishes are made fresh to order. Thus, we’re happy to accommodate dietary concerns. For example, we have gluten free brown rice pasta for customers on gluten free diets and half portions are available on most menu items.

One thing on the website that had me mildly concerned was the references to past awards, without dates. I tried to look up the references but didn’t find anything. Perhaps they were pre-internet? This kind of thing always worries me. What have you done -lately- is what I want to know.

We arrived at about 5:30 on Wednesday and were immediately seated. The restaurant was about 1/4 full.  While I’m not sure how a place can be a restaurant -and- cafe at the same time, the first thing we noticed about the place is that it is very much more Cafe than Restaurant. The place is showing its age; the ambiance is, well, clunky. The wine glasses sum up the atmosphere of the place. Short, faux cut crystal, thick with mould lines visible. You know. The kind you buy at Canadian Tire. That you can drop and they usually just bounce. Those ones.

Our very young server was at our table quickly and took our drink order; a 1/2 litre of the House Red, which according to the menu is  “Specially bottled for Chianti Cafe by one of Italy’s best known producers.” It was a passable chianti, a bit thin, but we’re shiraz drinkers so all chiantis seem a bit thin.

As usual, I let our server know I needed gluten free and it was obvious from the server’s reaction that this is something they get asked a fair amount. No look of “huh?” Good start.

Kim is an artichoke junkie so for antipasti, we ordered the Asparagi & Carcofi Salad which is “Asparagus and Artichokes in our Homemade Italian Dressing”. For our mains, Kim ordered Pollo Boscaiola (Chicken with Mushrooms, Onions, Parsley, Wine, Olive Oil and Garlic. Served with Fettuccini Solario) and I ordered Fettuccine Chianti (Prosciutto Ham, Mushrooms and Cheese Sauce). Kim ordered hers GF even though she doesn’t have to so I could taste (she’s very sweet ;))

While we waited for our order, we watched the restaurant rapidly fill up. A few minutes later, our server came out to inform us that the antipasti we ordered was not GF as there was gluten in the dressing. I thought this was a bit odd as Italian dressing (especially “home made”) is usually GF. Oil, vinegar and spices right? Apparently not. It was a bit disappointing but I commend the staff for knowing. As we were a bit pressed for time, we decided not to try and order anything else.

Our mains arrived within 15 minutes. The first thing I noticed was that both the dishes which were supposed to be fettuccine were penne. I suppose as a GF customer in a pasta restaurant, you can’t be too picky but how hard is it to carry a couple of different varieties of GF pasta? They all cost the same. On the plus side, the pasta on both dishes was cooked nicely and was not in the least bit mushy. Given my experience with GF pastas, I’d guess they were using Tinkyada brown rice pasta. It’s the best out there for not turning to paste. My dish was creamy, with a smoky flavour. (hmm that was prosciutto and not bacon, right Chianti?) In any case, it was very tasty.

Kim’s main was a mixed bag. The pasta Solario was very good. Light and full of flavour although we both agreed it could have had a bit more garlic. Kim was a bit disappointed with the chicken part of the dish. She thought it was a bit bland and that the chicken should have been grilled. It had the pale, unappetizing look of steamed bird. Since we’ve not seen how the dish is prepared normally, it’s possible that it was steamed to keep the chicken off a contaminated grill. In that case, all is forgiven 🙂 Despite the look, the chicken was moist and had a nice flavour. Kim didn’t finish it all, so I used it to mop up the rest of my cream sauce (no bread on -our- table)

We didn’t have time or room for dessert and I didn’t look too closely at the dessert menu but there were a few things that looked like I could have.

By the time we left at about 6:40, there was a line up of about 20 people waiting to be seated. I don’t know if they accept reservations, as it doesn’t say on their website. If they do and you plan on visiting after 6pm (even on a Wednesday), I’d recommend a reservation. There’s $2 for 2 hour parking in a lot behind the restaurant.

This has been a bit of a strange review to write as I seem to have been doing a lot of complaining and yet, the thing is, we really quite enjoyed ourselves. The service was quick and competent, if not very friendly and the food was plentiful, tasty and safe, if not very “pretty”. To be able to eat GF at a pasta restaurant is a treat. And then there was the price. We don’t usually pay much attention to the price of things when we order. If we’re out, we get what we want. But when the bill arrived, I actually did a double take.  Less than $50 for dinner for two – with wine? Granted, it would have been a bit more if we’d been able to eat the appetizer we ordered but still. $50! I’ve eaten a lot worse meals for $50 a -person- at some unnamed -restaurants- here in town.

Chianti -Cafe- is just fine by us. We’ll be back. And it won’t take us 10 years this time.


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The Day I Invented iTunes

The following is something I wrote for a tech site newsletter back in 2004. I recently rediscovered it and thought  I’d post it here while I finish my next restaurant review.

Let me tell you about the day I invented iTunes. Unlike Al Gore inventing the internet, it’s true. Well sort of. I didn’t invent it. But I should have. And therein lies my tale.

I had “The Idea” way back in 1997. At the time I was in a band, struggling to get noticed in a world of bands. In the mid 90’s, we had a distribution deal with an independent distributor. Short story shorter, we ended up not getting paid for most of the cd’s sold through them. We couldn’t afford the loss of the product but we chalked it up to experience. The next distributor we talked to asked for 100 play copies (freebies for radio and print). We sent them and the company promptly folded, leaving us with 100 fewer copies and a very bad opinion of the music industry. How did this lead me to “The Idea”? A bit more history is required.

I’d been using computers since the days of the Apple IIe and the IBM PC, so I was fairly literate as a “user”, but certainly had no programming or development experience. In 1993, I’d heard about this latest greatest thing in the computer world…it was called the World Wide Web. I knew I had to “get on”, even though I wasn’t really sure what that meant. I remember vividly the day in 1994, I hooked up to the Edmonton Freenet at 9600 kbps using a borrowed Toshiba 1200 laptop (green screen, 10MB HD, weighed about as much as Thanksgiving Turkey.) Back in those days, the NCSA Mosaic web browser hadn’t been developed yet and all browsing was done using Lynx for DOS, a textual link browser. It was plain, a bit confusing and unbelievably exciting. I remember thinking to myself, “I’m looking at information on a computer in Switzerland.” Now that dates me huh? Worse yet, I remember watching B&W TV and playing Pong (and liking it). As cool as it was, the web was not yet ready for prime time, at least for someone like me.

Then in late ‘94 or early ’95, I get my first look at the Mosaic (later to become Netscape). OK now -this- is interesting. Almost as soon as I saw the thing, I knew our band had to be on the web. If I could browse a site in Switzerland, someone in Switzerland could find out about -us-. And that might mean they’d book us for the fabled “European Tour” (which, sadly, they never did). At the very least they might want a CD. After several months we had our first website. But talk about a straight up learning curve. There was almost no information on how to do this. And what there was, was confusing. There was no Internet For Dummies. Not that I would have ever read something with a title like that but that’s a whole other column. The first year in it’s existence, our website got over 3000 visitors. It was amazing. Of course way back then, the web was a much smaller place so there wasn’t nearly as many choices and generating traffic on a site was a lot easier. But 3000 visitors; from around the world. Cool. The first web site incarnation was pretty much what we all now call a business card site. Some contact information, band bio’s and some pictures and even online order form. No security, no online payment processing and not too exciting by today’s standards, but not bad for back then. It was online at a time when companies like Coke (1998) and Sony (1996) weren’t. Cool. One day in my travels on the web, I noticed some chat about this company called Progressive Networks (later to become Real Networks) and this software I could download (at 14.4 kbps by then…oooh) which would allow me to record an audio file digitally, put it on my website and people could listen to it. For a band trying to get their music heard, this seemed like the Holy Grail. Within a week I had one of the first band websites in Canada and maybe North America with audio. Way Cool.

Now we press the FFwd button a bit to early 1997 and a conversation I had in a Denny’s in Calgary, before or after a gig. I don’t quite remember. We’d just been screwed twice by Distributors and were getting frustrated by our lack of progress and how much it was costing us to get exactly nowhere. It was a bit more of a spew on my part than an actual conversation as my tablemates politely nodded and said uhuh…oh…hmmm. The highlights of the spew where something like this:

“There’s these new technologies…MP3 compression (1996), CD burning (1995), web based eCommerce. Independent Bands need a way to get their music heard. Independent Bands need a way to sell their music. Most CD’s suck except for one or two songs…except ours. People should be able to buy music for a buck or two. Not a whole CD. Just the song or songs they want. Maybe they could order a CD with the songs they picked. They should be able to preview the music on the website, purchase it on the website and download it from the website. What a great flippin’ idea!

Sound familiar? At the end of that conversation I was so jazzed by the concept, I went and wrote it all down and said “I need to start a company and make this happen. It’s the Next Big Thing.” Nothing stood between me and success but failure. Problem was I couldn’t convince anyone around me that this was anything but some obscure tech thing that might be interesting but had no real long-term viability. You must realize that this is all taking place in Edmonton and Calgary. Not exactly beacons of high tech at the time. People were (and mostly still are) more interested in sucking as much oil out of the ground as possible…and cows. Technology and Art, especially the combination of the two, were simply not on anyone’s radar. The other little problem was that I was flat broke, in the hole actually, and living in a warehouse. In hindsight, I should have hitchhiked to Palo Alto and knocked on doors until someone listened. I didn’t. Instead, I made a weak attempt at getting the thing done. Threw up my hands and said “The technology’s too new, too expensive, I’ve no help, I live in a warehouse, I eat 3 times a week whether I need to or not. I give up. Let someone else do it.”

Several have tried and failed. I never thought Napster (1999) would fly. I remember the first time I checked it out. I thought, “Cool, but how in the world do they think the can get away with this?” You could smell mega-lawsuit from day one. Other attempts from the recording industry have been spectacular flops. Napster 2.0? Give me a break. Personally, I think the music industry listened too much to the software community whispering in their ear. Don’t -sell- music, -license- it. Restrict its use. Make people keep paying. KaChing! What the industry didn’t and mostly still doesn’t understand is that music is Art. It is a business, yes. Artists and people involved in producing and distributing music need to eat more than 3 times a week. (Notice I mention Artists first?) But the reason mainstream music has become so insipid and un-listenable is that the people involved in making it think of the business before they think of the art. It’s a recipe for crap. Imagine some freakish world where The White Album stopped playing after a period of time and required you to upgrade to The White Album v2.0. I imagine the industry is wishing they’d figured a way to do it back then. They are sure trying hard now. iTunes seems to be getting a lot of the things right, although I still think it is too restrictive in terms of secondary use, but at least you can get what you want, when you want and artists and the business are making some money.

Looking back, I can’t say that “The Idea” would have worked at the time. Maybe it needed 10 years of incubation and technology advancements for it to fly. Maybe I’d be having lunch with Steve Jobs discussing the way we could interface my website business with his iPod. Maybe… Thing about a good idea is that if you don’t do it, make it happen, someone else -will-.

If you have an idea, stick with it. Starve. Push. Hitchhike. Go places you don’t think you can. Take risks. Lose it all. Win Big. It’s what being an entrepreneur is all about. Don’t get caught saying, “Reminds me of the time I invented…” Hmmm…Maybe Al did invent the Internet after all.

Oct 22/04

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We had heard on glutenfreeedmonton that Sukothai on 104 ave and 116 street in Edmonton was a Celiac & allergen friendly restaurant so we decide to drop by last night.  We arrived around 5pm and  we were the first ones there. The back page of the menu says Celiac and Allergen Friendly, which is a great way start to a meal.  I told our server I was Celiac and he immediately showed me the things I could –not- have, which was easier than what I could have because almost everything on the menu was GF or was easily made GF. How often does -that- happen. All he asked was that I remind him when I placed the order so he could get it right.

There are no appetizers on the menu that are GF as they are all deep fried but he told us for long time customers and Celiacs, there was an off menu item which they could do. This was a rice wrap stuffed with shrimp, mint, cilantro, lettuce and something I couldn’t quite figure out. It came with a mild peanut chili sauce. This was one of the better rice wraps I have ever tried. I asked why it wasn’t on the regular menu and was told that they were often too popular and they take a lot of time to prepare. I can vouch for this as I make them at home. If it’s busy they might not be able to make them for you.

The main course was out right when we were finished the wraps. Our mains were the Green Chicken Curry & Lemongrass noodles with a side of coconut rice. The curry was mild and rich with great flavours of kaffir lime and Thai basil. I assume it was Thai basil. It could have been regular fresh basil but it is a Thai restaurant 🙂 I make green curry all the time but I’ve not used basil in it. I will be using it from now on. I loved it. The lemon grass noodles were my favourite. Lots of crisp stir fried veggies, (I hate soggy veggies in stir fry), shrimp, thick rice noodles, a mildly spiced sauce, well balanced with lemon grass. Often lemon grass is overpowering, but this got it just right. Both the mains were a bit on the mild side for our tastes but we’ll ask for extra heat next time we go.

The coconut rice was a nice side but we found it a bit too sweet but we -are- brown rice eaters so we find even plain white rice sweet. We ordered the small and that was a lot of rice for 2 people.

Everything was prepared and presented very nicely.

Sukothai obviously knows how to deal with people with food allergies & intolerances. Of the 4 tables that were seated, there was one table with Celiac, one with a peanut allergy and one with a shellfish allergy. I’m amazed that a restaurant serving Asian cuisine could (or would) accommodate those two allergies. The server was well informed and simply said “sure we can do that” (but not in a scary-I-don’t-understand-what-that-means-but-it’s-no-big-deal way)

The wine list is pretty basic but they do have one of our favourites, Wyndham 555 Shiraz by the bottle. We chose the house red which is the Mission Hill Merlot from B.C. They have a Mission Hill white as well but I don’t remember what it is. Only house wines are available by the glass or ½ litre. Beer selection is poor but we’re GF so that’s not a big deal right?

Dinner for 2 was around $80 with wine and a nice tip for the great –safe- service.  Reservations weren’t required.

Well done Sukothai.

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