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Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Canada's 100 Best Restaurants - Corso 32

Edmonton's Corso 32 once again earned a spot in Maclean's quasi-periodic 'best restaurants' issue. In this year's issue, Corso shares the podium with deserving co-victors Rostizado by Tres Carnales and Rge Rd. Though functionally different, common philosophies of locally-sourced yet pragmatic ingredients, artistically individualistic interiors, and memorably engaging personalities unite this trio. Corso 32 is the oldest of the three; though a mere four (pushing five) years old, this puts Daniel Costa's brainchild squarely in the category of "established" restaurants.

This descriptor should hardly be sneered at. To the contrary: it should be applauded. In this epoch of rapid-fire information streams, with attention spans reaching an historical low and a public that too often revels in tearing down restaurants behind the veil of online anonymity, it's a small miracle that eateries survive past the five year mark. Corso was indisputably the talk of the town when it opened, but eventually the blinding sheen of novelty wore off and gave way to a durable, powerful, patina of longevity.

Reservations at Corso are hard-won victories, just as they were four years ago - a testament to the kitchen's prowess. The room is still dark. The tables are still close together; so many diners were a-tizzy when their notions of North American personal space were challenged. Though the enigmatic word cloud that once separated tables from kitchen has vanished, a life-sized portrait of Costa's Italian forebearers still gazes over the room with comfortable ease. A grappa-based cocktail kicks off an evening meal with similarly enigmatic grace: alternating notes of air, frothy sweetness and round, bracing sour undertones are held in the same breath by sunny citrus. Unexpected yet most welcome.

Arancini are piping-hot from the fryer, encircled by rivulets of steam. An exploratory prod through these spheres' crispy crusts reveals a toothsome mantle of arborio rice with interjections of sonorous morel mushrooms. They are every bit as beguiling as they were on the maiden printing of Corso's first menu.

House-made Goat Ricotta remains another long-standing menu favourite, and for good reason. Throughout this satiny creation one finds neither graininess nor the tell-tale musk of "goat" - both of which characterize other, lesser cheeses.

Corso 32 was but one of two Edmonton restaurants that cracked Maclean's "best restaurants" issue in 2012 (the other most-deserving recipient being Tres Carnales). This time, Edmonton's contributions have notched up to three. Though but one small step in this city's quest for recognition as a valid dining destination in Canada (certainly no small feat when this province's reputation of 'beef and more beef' precedes it), these comrades-in-arms have made greater contributions to this province's - and this country's - culinary landscape than they know. Such dedication to one's craft cannot be falsified.

Author's note: I am proud to confess that I was a judge and contributing author for both the 2012 and 2015 Maclean's restaurant special editions.

Corso 32 on Urbanspoon

Monday, 13 April 2015

Bubba's Rises From the Ashes

Bubba's BBQ and Smoke House once lived in a nondescript field behind a south-side Superstore, hemmed in by two busy roads and operating out of a regular-looking trailer. Yet here, alchemy occurred. Slabs of meat were transformed by smoke and spice rubs, kissed and carried into otherworldly realms by the byproducts of combusting wood. Customers lined up, rain or shine, to take carnivorous communion at this altar of all things smoked and grilled. This halcyon era of barbecue, when protein-packed portions of sultry flesh were dished out in empty lots instead of overly polished restaurants, should have lasted forever. But disaster struck. The city let out a collective cry of anguish when Bubba's humble trailer went up - literally - in smoke. Bubba and his barbecue vanished.

This is how an improbable cult hero rose from the ashes.

Recent word on the street suggested that Bubba's was alive and well at an auction house near Argyll Road. The city's collective cry of anguish gave way to a frenzied "Hallelujah" Chorus. A BBQ lunch-run last Friday produced a take-out container heaving with succulent pork ribs, a generous helping of barbecue sauce, and a small mountain of seasoned rice. This is what Edmontonians dream of during the interminably grey winter months: lascivious meat and bone so thoroughly permeated by smoke and rubbed spices that they sigh and fall away at the lightest touch. The small tub of BBQ sauce seems almost redundant. Too often, barbecue ribs in this city are drowned - no; bludgeoned to a second death by superfluous syrupy concoctions. That is never the case with Bubba's

Bubba is one of those rare souls who does what he does because he damn well believes in it. Not because it's trendy. Not because it sets social media and the blogosphere a-twitter. Certainly not because he has something to prove or an axe to grind. No; good barbecue must be done for its own sake. Anything less would be unacceptable.

Bubba's BBQ and Smoke House on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Sandwich & Sons - There's a Theory for That

Diffusion Theory describes, quite simply, how an idea takes hold through time.  The diffusion, or spread from its original source, begins with "innovators" concocting the idea. "Early adopters" begin using this idea before it is "cool," and "early majority" users follow soon thereafter. "Late majority" users generally comprise the general populace, indicating that the idea has gained widespread acceptance. Finally, "laggards" represent the hold-outs; in other words, those unwilling to change.

Though this theory originated in the social sciences, it is - like so many others from disparate and diverse disciplines - applicable to the world of food. Ideas - in other words, restaurants - do not just gain traction through time, but also through geographic space. This isn't merely a scatter plot of ideas versus time.

Consider a hypothetical city with few independently-owned eateries: it starts with just a few, often within a small geographic area. Through time, though, as the idea of eating at small, crafty restaurants gains momentum, other places open further from the center of activity. Quite simply, these idea-restaurants fan out in both space and time.

Consider the following. (And yes, that is a "Bill Nye The Science Guy" homage) A sandwich shop opens. Yes, there are many other places that make good sandwiches, but how about two acclaimed chefs (Alex Sneazwell and Ben Staley) who man the kitchen? Better yet, why not plunk this joint right in the middle of wind-swept industrial park? Where would this fall on the Diffusion-Restaurant-Theory bell curve?

This is Sandwich & Sons. A glance at the chalk board menu reveals nostalgic sandwich permutations, such as corned beef, bologna or grilled cheese, all dished up with a baggie of house-made potato chips. Grilled Cheese seamlessly blends decadently melted cheddar, smoked gouda, and monterey jack cheese, while a judicious swipe of artichoke spread and tangy sourdough constitutes ingenuity in both inception and presentation. One bite, with eyes closed, sweeps the diner back to happy, gooey, childhood lunches when the world was no more complex than one needed it to be.

Fried Bologna finds the same sourdough background paired, this time, with grainy mustard, lettuce, a hint of mayo and a hearty sprinkling of crispy onions. A good handful of home-made potato chips rides shotgun for both sandwiches. Some chips shatter at the first bite, while others are unabashedly chewy. This myriad of textures sets these crisps apart from the commercial variety, which are too often besmirched by mind-numbing sameness.

Certainly, no mind-numbing sameness exists at Sandwich and Sons. Rather, the kitchen shows a predilection for spinning childhood favourites into something far more urbane, without falling into the trap of making them arcane, deconstructed, or needlessly complex. Surely, this is evidence that our city has solidly entered the "early majority" phase of Diffusion. We are ready for a chef-run sandwich shop plunked right in the middle of right now.

Sandwich & Sons on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Change from Within at Coffee Bureau

If you have ever taken an urban geography class, you've doubtless encountered the "doughnut effect." This not-so-unrealistic theory describes an evolution of urban areas wherein the downtown slowly deteriorates to the point of darkness (i.e., the "hole") and the outskirts fatten up like concentric rings around this dead zone, continually sprawling ever-outward. The Effect characterizes a great many North American cities.

This paradigm has been true for Edmonton, but it is far from a woeful fate inscribed in stone. Glimmers rose from downtown: small and tentative at first, but then bursting forth like new stars from a murky nebula in some far-flung region of outer space. Five years ago, you could name a few of these downtown stars and perhaps count them on one hand. In 2015, it is a different story altogether and mere digits are not enough to number these nascent cafes, restaurants, and coffee houses.

Coffee Bureau has been open but a scant week, in an austere white brick building on a particularly windy corner of Jasper and 105th. White lettering on the window proclaims that "Coffee always gives you a break," and a step through Bureau's door quickly affirms this assertion. The small (but never cramped) room's feel falls somewhere between Scandinavian (think wood ceilings and hyper-cool light fixtures) and Italian (think gleaming espresso machine and deftly tiled wall). Snack options will be fleshed out in the future, but for the time being, a pair of tawny butter tarts require both tooth and spoon to consume - their dreamy insides are gorgeously runny and sweet.

The coffee menu is short and decisive. An espresso macchiato places just the right amount of milk foam over two strong shots of aromatic espresso. The beans are roasted right in Edmonton, a hop, skip and jump north at Ace Coffee Roasters.

Outside, though winter's tenuous hold on the city has intermittently tightened and loosened, steady pedestrian traffic trickles in and out of the numerous food establishments that dot each block. This would have been curious - even unimaginable - in days past, where downtown was the domain of the questionable and the derelict. That has never been more untrue than it is now, and to see Edmonton grow out of the inevitable "Doughnut Effect" is both gratifying and exciting. No matter how much politicians crow about revitalizing the downtown core, it is irrefutably evident that change will come from within - from places just like Coffee Bureau.

Coffee Bureau on Urbanspoon

Monday, 16 February 2015

Bul Go Gi House - A Promise Half Fulfilled

Bul Go Gi House feels like it fell right out of "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." The interior is so outlandishly dated that it could easily have been where Ridgemont characters Stacy Hamilton and Mark Ratner shared an awkwardly prolonged dinner, thanks to Mark's realization that his wallet was missing. Every nuance of Bul Go Gi's space, from the vinyl chairs, to bright green accents and wood-paneled walls, is stuck in its own time loop, perplexingly independent of the world outside.

This particular brand of anachronistic decor produces a counterintuitive expectation, though; with decor this zany, how can the food not be fabulous? If a trendy soundtrack and ultra-avant-modern furniture are palpably absent, surely the cuisine must stand on its own.  Tiny dishes of pungent kimchi and supple bean sprouts set the meal's wheels into motion. The former is impressively spicy, while the latter is soothing and cool. An ice cold bottle of Cass beer whets all whistles. Plates, inexplicably, have polar bears on them.

Bul-Gal-Bee arrives at the table in short order, sizzling and sighing with smoke and sticky sweetness. This quintessentially Korean dish is nothing short of dazzling in its simplicity. Just-done meat with coveted char-marks is beautifully tender. If the bone cross-sections were edible, surely they would have been devoured too.

Be-Beem-Cook-Soo (left) and Sae-Woo-Bock-Kum (right), however, are perplexing in their sameness. The former is comprised of thin noodles, chicken, onions and zucchini - and the menu promises spiciness - but the flavours therein are undifferentiated and reminiscent of a small town greasy spoon Chinese restaurant's offerings. The latter's promise of spice remained unfulfilled as well. Though shrimp abounded in this stir-fry, these crustaceans alone could not compensate for an otherwise bland melange of vegetables.

And so, Bul Go Gi House plants its feet firmly in a world of antediluvian tables, laminated menus and above-average beef. One had hoped that, based in an imagined reality of bygone 80s movie characters dining under similar circumstances, the entire meal would have been exceptional. This scenario could have unfolded much differently, had the non-carnivorous parts of the meal met with a steadier hand for seasoning. Polar plates and sizzling beef aside, the meal was a promise only half fulfilled.

Bul Go Gi House on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Continental Drift: Chef Xavier Perez Stone cooks at Rostizado

Edmonton wishes, quite clearly, to be a world-class city. It's no secret.  One need only scan the downtown horizon, blink once or twice, and then marvel at the gangly sky scrapers popping up like daisies through the tired snow. This shift from "big small town" to "world class city" cannot be forced or coerced, though, and cannot happen through edifice and infrastructure alone. Irrefutable as their contribution to a city's acquisition of 'metropolitan' status may be, this tectonic shift is the consummation of many small, worldly acts.

Exposure to cuisine from far-flung realms comprises one such worldly act. I was fortunate to receive an invitation several weeks ago to a supper at Rostizado, starring Chef Xavier Perez Stone, who presently cooks at Grand Velas Riviera Maya Resort, located in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Though I have never traveled to Mexico, or to anywhere even remotely warm, for that matter, Mesoamerican ingredients, techniques and unbridled flair filled Rostizado's smoky-sweet space for a few fleeting hours on a damp January evening.

Supper begins with a bang, materializing in the earthly form of Foie Afrudato (upper right). This is a carnival ride on LSD: whispy, hyper-sweet cotton candy puffs that vanish into thin air with rich, fatty, velvety foie gras underneath. Langostra Negra (upper left) is practically the opposite: cool, restrained but never subdued, and light as air. Lolling lobster morsels share quarters with cucumber swirls, passionfruit puree, avocado, and tomatillo. One's Stradivarius to another's Fender: strikingly different, but easily masters of their own field. El Mar en Verde Moncromatico (lower left) emphasizes that seafood - in this case, sea bass - ought to be treated gently and never overcooked. Indeed, a good vet should be able to revive it. Perez Stone's seabass frolicks with green poblano chile sauce and collapses into buttery myomeres at the slightest touch. Finally, La Frutabilidad del Venado (lower right) reaffirmed the veracity of good venison. Here, the noble deer is kissed with hibiscus and beets; red ingredients that call out the meat's lavish sweetness.

Dessert, though there is scarcely room after a quartet of courses, is irresistible. Sopa de Coco y Pan de Leche (right) seduced with a paradox of sunny pineapple and moonglow coconut milk, all transversed by a braided river of crisp cookie, twisting like an ancient river through a post-glacial landscape. Choco Parece Playa No Es placed discs of banana in a lunar vista composed of chocolate ice cream, banana mole, and olive oil truffle - a summation of unctuous, luxurious textures that beguile, but never impose or overwhelm.

The change from "big small town" to "world class city" can be imposing and overwhelming, but only when such change is forced. These things need to happen on their own, on a smaller scale, even at the scale of a dinner plate. Chef Xavier Perez Stone's visit is a good start.

Read Marlow Moo's impression of the evening here.

Rostizado - By Tres Carnales on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Hypothesis Testing at Solstice Seasonal Cuisine

A title with specific dsecriptors is a testable hypothesis. Take 'Solstice Seasonal Cuisine,' for example. 'Solstice,' without its modifying adjectives, is a stand-alone moniker - it cannot be falsified, refuted, or rejected. Addition of descriptors, though, makes it testable and - logically - fodder for meaningful investigation.

 Solstice Seasonal Cuisine opened recently on 124th Street, furthering the street's tony geometric growth. Its name, upon first observation, implies strict adherence to seasonally available ingredients. Entry to Solstice reveals disco, which is a bold musical choice for any restaurant; the probability of disco going sideways in dramatic fashion is significant, but Solstice makes it work. A grey and white palette works with squarish, Coachman-esque lamps, and a backlit herbarium hypnotizes from behind the bar.

Solstice's barn-door menu opens to reveal a smattering of cocktails, wines, starters, entrees and desserts. A brief selection within each category circumvents the problem of reading a novella in order to pick a dish. A Manhattan - in this case, a 124th Street Manhattan - is a good test of the barkeep's mettle, and arrives with a sinuous orange ribbon and a lolling sphere of ice orbiting in the glass. Proper ratios of sweet vermouth, angostura bitters and sultry smoked rye mingle and seduce with smoky, citrusy accuracy.

Jumbo Scallop and Cornmeal-Crusted Oysters, the evening's chosen starter, constitute a quasi-minimalist positioning of just-cooked scallop, two carefully cantilevered potato crisps, and a trio of crunchy-chewy breaded oysters. A tangled bird's nest of sprouts and a few tastefully placed sprigs of greenery hint at the herbarium's substance.

Sweet Pea Falafel are mealy, steaming hot, and densely resonant with earthy pulses. A quartet of crisp carrot chips frame the dish and impart suble sweetness. These crisps hide chalky blobs of salty labneh cheese. This cheese, taken in concert with the falafel, are sheer bliss.

Halibut and Prawns emulate notes of seafood visited in the preceding appetizer, though the titular fish presents a titch overdone. Buttery prawns, though, are as unctuously rich as their podium of mille feuille podium. Little sunchoke leaves, in all the pungent restraint, play with the halibut's russet-hued chorizo cream sauce. Were the fish just a little less overwrought, this combination would be singular.

The meal concludes with a beguiling chocolate mousse overlaid with a cloudy meringue swirl and cardamon-scented foam - plus a few strategically-placed raspberries. The summation is one of rich, bittersweet cocoa counterbalanced with eggy air - an astute ratio of earthly flesh to heavenly aspirations.

At the end of it all, though, one ponders the seasonality of each dish's constituents, for no specific explanation, on the part of either wait staff or menu, addressed this conundrum. Specific descriptors, such as the phrase "seasonal cuisine," do indeed beget expectation and validation, and this phrase appears far too often these days to stand untested. I've no doubt that many of Solstice's ingredients are highly seasonal, which would anchor their eponymous hypothesis in hard data, and the kitchen certainly has skill, but the variables that comprise Solstice Seasonal Cuisine require greater elucidation.

Solstice Seasonal Cuisine on Urbanspoon


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