Monday, August 30, 2010

Big Day Downtown (Part IV): MEC, Just Us, & Freak Lunchbox

Going into my last Big Day Downtown, I had $66.75. Coming out, I am left with a single cent that I am afraid I will be unable to spend. Even if I could find something that only cost a penny, I doubt I could buy it with a Visa gift card. Let's run down the day's purchases :)

Stop 1: Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC)

Mountain Equipment Co-op
When I went to university, I used to make fun of all the Upper-Canadians going to my school with their MEC backpacks all snooty and such. Well, call me a hypocrite, because I am so happy that MEC decided to open a store in Halifax. Since it arrived on the corner of Granville and Blowers Streets back in 2001, I've shopped there many, many times. It's close to where I work, it's right across the street from where I park my car, and well, they just sell so much cool stuff. Very soon, I'm planning to go buy some camping equipment from them, including some sleeping bags for Julie and I. It's a very easy place to spend money, not to mention their kick-ass website! If they don't have something in stock at the store, you can order it online and have it delivered to the store at no charge. That is service.

Downstairs at MEC
Since I had to restrain myself to spending only 67 bucks during this visit, I bought a nice fleece for the upcoming cooler fall weather, and a 14L waterproof stuff sack to contain my wares and keep them dry as they sit in my pack.

FYI, if you'd like to help with my MEC addiction, please visit my wish list. I keep it up to date :)

It's freezing out here! Maybe there's something in this bag This looks like a nice fleecy jacket I think this'll fit All warm now

MEC Watchtower fleece + MEC Roll Top Stuff Sack + tax = $64.98
Left to spend: $1.77

Stop 2: Just Us Cafe

Just Us! Cafe
One of the fine baristas at Just Us!Anyone who knows me (and some of my previous Big Day Downtown posts will confirm this) knows that my drug of choice is caffeine. It gets me up in the morning, keeps me going all day, and puts me to bed at night (in tea form, preferably orange pekoe or Earl Grey, thanks). And the dealer I frequent most often is Just Us on Barrington Street. I try as much as I can to remember to bring my re-usable mug with me when I go here because they have a very sensible policy of only stamping your loyalty card when you buy a coffee in your own mug. I think that is a great way to gently nudge people to use less disposable products. Smart thinking, Just Us!

I had a mug full of the darkest roast they had brewed.

Mug full o' coffee + tax = $1.48
Left to spend: $0.29

Stop 3: Freak Lunchbox

Freak Lunchbox
At this point, I had 29 cents left on my Visa gift card, so there was not much choice in the matter. There is only one store that I could think of where I could buy something for 29 cents, let alone with a Visa. I walked the block north to Freak Lunchbox, enlisted the help of one of the friendly staff and manged to purchase an amount of chocolate-covered coffee beans that came to as close as possible to my $0.29 when tax was added. I walked back to my office munching on $0.28 worth, or about 15 beans :)

~15 chocolate-covered coffee beans + tax = $0.28
Amount remaining unspent: $0.01

And so that brings to an end of my Big Day Downtown money, I sure enjoyed spending it!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Big Day Downtown (Part III): The Mongolie Grill

The Mongolie Grill
One of my favourite places to eat downtown is the Mongolie Grill on the corner of Granville and Sackville Streets. It's located where the Nova Scotia Sports Hall of Fame used to be. It's one of the few places where you can absolutely know every ingredient that is going into your meal, and over the past year and a half, when my big push was to lose weight, this was a huge benefit to me. It's one of the reasons why the Mongolie Grill is one of my picks for my Big Day Downtown.

VegetablesI suppose I should describe the premise of the Mongolie Grill a bit before I get started on my experience: You are presented with what resembles a salad bar of raw vegetables, meats, and sauces. You put the ingredients you want in your stir-fry into a small stainless steel bowl, and then have it weighed. This weight determines the price of your meal. You pay depending on how hungry you are! They then dump the contents of your bowl onto the largest cooking surface I've ever seen, and toss it until it's cooked. I should mention that they use water instead of oil when they stir-fry, so you know you're not getting more than you bargained for. There are oils that you can add in the sauce bar if you're into that sort of thing.

Hot and Sour soupI came into the restaurant at an odd time, 2:30pm, so I was the only one there! I got great service :), but even at its busiest, the wait staff are very attentive. Because of the buffet-style nature of the place, the menu is pretty much just appetizers and drinks; I usually opt out of those and go for a water. Besides, each meal is started with a bowl of your choice of either some kind of creamy soup (today was corn chowder) or some kind of spicy soup (today's was hot and sour soup). As a general rule, I try to stay away from cream-based stuff; I went with the hot and sour soup. Wasn't the hottest or sourest soup I've had at the Mongolie Grill, but it was good.

Weighing inI jammed some of my favourite vegetables into that bowl: broccoli, green onions (and regular onions), water chestnuts, carrots, green peppers. Don't give me any of that baby corn though, I can't stand it. Add some chicken and some scallops and a scoop of some hot oil, and we're off to the scales for the weigh-in. My meal weighed in at just over half a kilogram! A note to the vegans and vegetarians out there: if you don't have meat in your stir fry, you qualify for the vegetarian 20% discount. This has never applied to me, ever. However, those water-laden vegetables can be some of the heaviest things in your bowl. I've tried in the past to create the most weight-optimized meal possible, but I think I got a little too obsessed. I eventually gave that up.

The finished productAfter a few minutes, you're presented with the finished product--a fine stir-fried concoction of your own devising.  Mine sure looks good, doesn't it? I don't think I've ever had the same meal twice here. You can vary the ratios of the different vegetables and meats and combine the sauces however your taste buds see fit.

I've come to this restaurant dozens of times over the past two years, and I think I've only had one meal that was a little over-cooked. Other than that, I can't say that I've had a bad experience. Kudos to the Mongolie Grill for being consistently awesome!

Mongolie Grill stir-fry @ 0.565 kg + coffee + tip: $24.00
Left to spend: $66.75

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Big Day Downtown (Part II): Cabin Coffee

So, since my first day of spending my free money consisted solely of a coffee, I guess I'm going to spend this money over a few different days. My second day of money-spending has, perhaps predictably, also involved coffee.

Cabin Coffee, to be precise. I've walked past this place on the corner of Salter and Hollis Streets many times. Sometimes I stop in after I've finished my first coffee of the morning from the Halifax Farmers Market, and I need that 11 am pick-me-up. This time, it was after a delicious chicken shawarma that I had from Venus Pizza; however that shawarma was not officially part of my Big Day Downtown, so I won't talk about it further except to say again that it was delicious.

At Cabin Coffee, I decided to get a cappuccino. This is a drink that I don't usually have; I prefer my caffeine to be shunted directly into my veins, not floating in a milk foam ether. In fact, the only cappuccinos I can remember drinking were those from Tim Hortons, and I don't think those count. I'm still not sure what the difference is between a cappuccino and a latte is (perhaps the more coffee-educated among you can tell me), but nevertheless it was very well-received by my palate. I think I forgot to ask for non-fat milk and I could definitely taste the creaminess I hadn't known since my last "double-double". I'm quite used to using skim these days.

The cinnamon bun was decent. I can't really give it a glowing review, because I have in my head a very high standard to which no cinnamon bun has come close since the closing of the Uncommon Grounds on Argyle Street. They made the best buns that I have ever had, and the remaining UGs make these weird cinnamon muffins that I can't even put in the same category. Some of the main strikes against it, in my books:
  • No frosting or glaze. A cinnamon bun's gotta have some glaze. Glaze is preferable to frosting, but just mixing some sugar with the cinnamon isn't enough for me.
  • Fell apart too easily. If I can't hold the thing in one hand and not have the layers separate before my eyes, invariably dropping onto my shirt or shoes, then how can I  be expected to enjoy it on the go? This is critical.
  • Not "doughy" enough. This one is nitpicky, and I think I may be in the minority on this one, but I like a cinnamon bun that is moist and chewy, not dry and crumbly like a tea bicsuit. This was a close call, but I think it fell short.

The ambiance of Cabin Coffee is certainly top notch. It's the quintessential laid back, neo-hippie vibe coffee shop. It actually reminds me of a place I know well: The Bridge Street Cafe in Sackville, New Brunswick. I think the service at Cabin Coffee is a little faster, but that's not really a feat of gargantuan proportions. Seriously though, how can you not like a place that has chandeliers that cast silhouettes of moose and bears across the establishment?

Overall, thumbs up to Cabin Coffee, but then, I've hardly met a coffee shop I didn't like.

Cabin Coffee large cappuccino + cinnamon bun + tip:  $6.50
Left to spend: $90.75