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Monday, 8 December 2014

Winds of Change at Enzo's on 76

The joyous discovery of Enzo's on 76 restored faith that the neighbourhood eatery was alive and well, feet firmly planted, head helt high, with strong arms stirring a cauldron of bubbling marinara. Enzo's had no need for a trendy street to call home, and that was part of its appeal; good food requires no fixed address. The restaurant's namesake rotated constantly from kitchen to front of house. Enzo and his warmly-lit space were meant for each other. Change blew through the doors - in my eyes - inexplicably. Word on the street is that Enzo is focusing on his take-out place in Sherwood Park. Front of house and kitchen staff are all different now, and though this unto and of itself is not bad or wrong, memories tied to this specific location still search for each other like a favourite hat waiting to be hung on a well-crafted coat hook.

Little has changed in the restaurant, esthetically speaking. Photographs of food have been replaced with vaguely Van Gogh-ish oil paintings, and a top-forty soundtrack in the background neither offends nor pleases. A plate of freshly sliced bread arrives with a small bowl of rosemary-infused olive oil. Not the garlic-infused oil and balsamic that Enzo used to serve, but it is headily fragrant and undeniably delicious.

Two mains - one the evening's special and the other a la carte - are a study in contrasts. Lobster Mac and Cheese (left) proffers ample lobster in a deceptively deep bowl of rigatoni. Promises of truffle oil don't quite shine through the rich cheese sauce, but the summation is still one of decadence and comfort. Pan-seared Arctic Char (right) is a treat and begs the question of why overexposed salmon gets more air time. Crunchy, sesam seed-encrusted skin protects moist myomeres that, in turn, shelter a vibrant and grassy green pea puree. Agreeable mixed vegetables are along for the ride, but this dish belongs unequivocally to the char.

Dessert, as the evening winds to a close, includes a Cappuccino Semifreddo (left) and Flourless Chocolate Cake (right). Each is decked out with miniature gingerbread men for the holidays, and the semifreddo is gifted a crunchy gingerbread tree. The semifreddo is nutty, chilly, and creamy without being too rich, but the chocolate cake is a contradiction of very heavy cake paired with vexingly sticky caramel popcorn, without much (apart from a valiant scoop of gelato) to marry the two.

The winds of change have indeed blown through Enzo's doors, and it is difficult to think of the restaurants in terms other than "before" and "after." Even though the food remains delicious, I cannot help but wonder the whereabouts of the eatery's eponymous, original chef, and hope that his spark, zest, and ability to restore faith in the very existence of neighbourhood restaurants is well-received in Sherwood Park.

Enzo's on 76 on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Breaking the Jinx at Central Social Hall

There are so many jinxed locations in Edmonton. One can think of a certain spot on Whyte Ave's western frontier that chewed through a high-end eatery, a coffee shop and a sushi joint in a matter of months. Or spaces on Jasper Avenue that suffer the same, perpetual, interminable fate. A certain corner of Jasper Avenue was a Japanese joint with dubious "naked sushi" a few years ago. Then, it morphed into "The Ruby Dragon," proffering purportedly good Chinese food that still failed to hang onto this coveted piece of real estate. Finally, in 2012, Central Social Hall cut the ribbon and threw open its doors. Passing motorists - myself included - caught glimpses of boisterous, crowded tables, and blinking flat-screens.

Still, I did not visit, unconvinced by my unsubstantiated assumptions of predictable hamburgers and sodden fries. A recent invitation to Central Social's new menu tasting event provided good reason to visit, and ultimately to shatter preconceived notions of pub-grub proficiency.
A detailed menu flaunts a daunting nine item roster for the evening, one that is nudged into sparkling motion by a glimmering flute of Glera Sparkling that tickles and whispers like the snowflakes outside. The flipside of the menu reads, "share and be social," and this phrase is as prophetic as it is accurate. A large platter of Kettle Chips (upper left) delivers satisfying crunch, though the accompanying caramelized onion dip falls a little short in the onion department. Bacon-Deviled Eggs (lower left) are ghostly white boats toting a rich payload of smoke and sweet. Ball Park Pretzels (lower right) are show-stealers. Warm, salty and beguiling, these knotty treasures find happy companions in fiery mustard and rich cheddar sauces. Better yet - both sauces in the same bite, much like a British mustard-and-cheese sandwich. Albacore Tuna Tataki (upper right) furthers the evening's trend with a strong hand of crisp wonton, supple tuna, and a savoury-tangy dollop of wasabi mayo on top.
 A Crispy Prawn Thai Noodle Salad (upper left), aside from that extremely memorable pretzel, is the evening's winner. Cool, citrusy, and summery, this melange of cabbage, cilantro, cuke, carrot and cucumber, finds sunshine with sweet mint, tart pickled onions, and earthy peanuts. A crispy fried shrimp is the proverbial cherry on top. A Spicy Chicken Taco (right) is the evening's misstep; chicken is shredded so finely as to be undetectable, while valentina hot sauce is inconsistently applied. Texturally, the sum of the parts is not the whole. Redemption arrives in the earthly form of Seafood Linguini (lower left). Here is a creamy, tomato-y treat that would just as home on a red checkered candlelit table cloth as it is under the uber-modern light fixtures of Central Social.
All good things must end, and if all good things ended with Apple-Cranberry Crumble, the world would be a far better, far happier, place.  Here, a rustic jam jar proudly cradles ruby-red apples, cranberries and rhubarb that relaxes and reclines under a crumbly blanket of pecan struesel. One could eat a bowl of struesel alone, as it's rather addicting. A tiny scoop - how I wish there was just a bit more - of vanilla gelato melts gratefully onto the surrounding crumbles while the omnipresent flat-screens blink hypnotically, like the headlights of passing vehicles outside.

Thank you, Central Social Hall, for your generous invitation, and for proving yourselves to be a strong contender in Edmonton's burgeoning gastropub scene. If anyone deserves to dispel that location's jinx, it's you.

For another take on the evening, read about Marlow Moo's experience.
Central Social Hall on Urbanspoon

Friday, 28 November 2014

The Gods of Cake at Duchess Bake Shop

Somewhere, wrapped deep within one's obligatory adult layers of pleasantries, manners and social mores, is a five year-old with an insatiable appetite for cake.

Hyperbole and a Half's Allie Brosh explains this phenomenon best.

Though there were social mores a-plenty at Duchess Bake Shop's recent cookbook launch (a fine volume that is well worth a purchase), I suspected that, lurking just barely below the surface of smart dresses and neatly pressed pants, was an entire army of five years olds at the ready, just waiting for their cue to strip the universe of sweetness.
Towering, many-hued macaron edifices, a multiverse of tarts, and sparkling petals of madeleines waited - no, veritably tempted and practically taunted. A silent, siren song of sweets. Kitchen tours set to the gentle strains of cellos and other string instruments produced little tidbits, like how Duchess's key lime pie sprung fully formed from the brow of a happy accident, namely, an unexpected shipment of limes. Or that French bakers always open a shop in Tokyo, because the Japanese public has a relentless desire for French baked goods. Or that no one - absolutely no one - order Paris Brest when Duchess first opened shop, and co-owner Giselle dutifully ate countless Parisian dainties for breakfast when the public spurned these international goodies in favour of more recognizable fare.
And so it goes. No more do baked goods wait in vain, yearning for a lover of pastries who will never arrive. No; Duchess outgrew its original space and expanded next door, opening "Provisions" in its natal digs and conjuring up a Parisian-Victorian room of jeweled chandeliers, backlit shelves (on of which proudly sports a tiny, gilded ornamental reindeer head), and counter upon on counter of baked goods. Fodder for the wildest childhood fantasies of everyone's inner five year-old.

Duchess Bake Shop on Urbanspoon

Monday, 24 November 2014

Credo Coffee - I Still Believe

Credo Coffee quietly turned heads when it opened shop downtown. Deftly pulled macchiatos were a timely antidote to overwrought extra-large double-doubles, and Credo's airy, sunlit, art-filled space breathed new life into downtown's dusty bricks. Fast forward a good five years and the rich brew of Intelligentsia beans still wafts from Credo's doors.

This time, though, the downtown set is not Credo's sole beneficiary. A smart flight of polished concrete steps on 124 street leads down to Credo's second-born. This shop hardly feels like it's below street level; floor to ceiling windows and a walk-out basement door lend this Credo the same sensations of light and approachibility as its downtown predecessor. The macchiato brownies (top left) are as deep, dark and devilishly delicious as they are on 104 street, and a frothy mug of London Fog (top right) is a heady brew of woodsy bergamot and sweetly astringent tea with hot milk.

Chewy granola bars (above) are a far cry from the corn syrup-laced bricks found on grocery shelves. No; here, chocolate chips, oats and raisins sidle themselves somewhere in between a bowl of hot oatmeal and a Grandma-style oatmeal cookie in terms of overall naughtiness. Espresso macchiatos (bottome left) are as rich and bold as an Italian race car mogul - and just as beguiling. Jewel-esque Jacek Chocolates (bottom right) are almost too pretty to eat. Almost, but their aesthetic appeal seals their fate. Set among the concrete ceiling and hyperlinear track lighting at Credo the Second, it's nearly impossible to sense that this stretch of 124 street is on the verge of something momentous, just like 104 street was that pivotal half-decade ago.

Credo Coffee on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 19 October 2014

A Minor Epiphany at Cococo

Italy is not a country of half-measures. 

Nor are Italians a subtle people. Be it food, architecture or upscale vehicles, all must be brighter, sleeker, and packed with more panache per cubic centimetre than its predecessors. This boisterous joie de vivre is juxtaposed against a paradoxically serene landscape of molar-like mountains, vast stretches of cropland, and positively Jurassic trees. 

North American experiences of Italy have thusly tended along the lines of "Eat, Pray, Love" or "Under the Tuscan Sun." (or even that Barilla pasta commercial where a sexy Italian neighbour saves the day)  In other words, one cannot possibly visit Italy and not be rocked by a life-altering epiphany. 

Promises of epiphanies in hillside villas are better fodder for Hollywood popcorn flicks than they are for realistic holiday experiences. When teary-eyed revelations failed to appear, I faced a singular, universal truth. Italy is home to some damn fine gelato. 

When the plug on my gelato-powered respirator was rudely yanked away, though, I gasped for my next hit. Twice daily gelato runs were too soon a distant memory. 

Sweet and timely consolation arrived as a scoop of white chocolate lemon and cinnamon bun gelato at Cococo. One could slip into the tired tirade of "that's not how it would taste in the old country," but that's not the point. These flavours very well may not ever appear across the ocean, but the lemon sang of fleeting sunshine. The cinnamon captured autumn's wistful urgency. Each voluptuous spoonful may as well have been narrated by Sophia Loren's throaty purr. I am not sure whether I discovered the meaning of life in Italy, but it's pretty darn clear that Cococo scoops a mean gelato. 

Cococo Cafe on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Close to Home at Rostizado

Food and language are entities of the same genetic stock. Both are capable of the most sublime expressions and nuances and, under optimal circumstances, present as vibrant layers. Presently, I am writing this in Milan's central train station, where multiple strata of languages are slow-smoked spices, undulating and reverberating with life. Despite the din, it all somehow makes sense.

If these layers could somehow be transmuted into scents, they then might come close to capturing the olfactory aura of Edmonton's Rostizado. Rostizado is the second-born sibling to vivacious Tres Carnales, but don't you dare compare the two. Rostizado is to Tres what wood-scented afterglow is to sun-warmed sand. What Billie Holiday is to Tito Puente.

Recently extinct Roast Coffee House's bones are long gone, and the broad timbre of Rostizado fills the antediluvian room with zest, camp, and laughter that veritably bounces off the warehouse ceiling.

The wait is long tonight, as one must gamble against the clock - pitting the timing of one's hunger against that of another. Fortunately, a stridently strong El Emperador seizes one's attention with velvety low notes of vanilla, herbaceous interjections of amaro and tequila, and an overt agenda of basil.

Smoked Salmon Sopes arrive not a moment too soon. Toothsome cornmeal discs cradle a worthy cargo of russet, cured salmon that whispers, rather than shrieks, captivating tales of mesquite and tequila.

Frijoles Charros are almost a meal unto themselves. How such hearty fare could spring fully-formed from the brow of a tropical country is paradoxical yet fortunate. Meaty beans and zippy cilantro chase away any evening chills, and little nubs of queso fresco are curiously reminiscent of squeaky curds that one would find in proper poutine.

The finale: Rosti-Pollo and Rosti Puerco (i.e., chicken and pork). Perhaps hours of flame, smoke and spice have caressed and coaxed each cut to a succulent coda. Piquant pickled onions and crisp pickled carrots impart colour and crunch. Each bite of tender flesh at once evokes layer upon layer of nuance, inflection, and luscious subtext - no different than the crust, mantle, and core of multifarious languages that are present so many thousands of kilometres away at the train station.
Good food, like language, captivates, challenges, and convinces one that there are certain universal truths. That Rostizado has their culinary priorities straight is doubtless one of them.

Rostizado - By Tres Carnales on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 7 September 2014

The Velvet Revolution at Whimsical Cake Studio

Second chances are important. Chefs change. Recipe change. Owners change. Good thing too; an unfortunate by-product of the food industry is that everyone - quite literally - wants a piece of the pie. Or wants to make the pie, no matter how good or bad it may be. Channels like the Food Network and the exponential proliferation of celebrity chefs have glamorized this world to the point of glossing over the every real blood, swears, screams and red-faced rending of garments that so often courses through commercial kitchens like some sort of supercharged life-blood.

And so, everyone wants to make that pie. Such was the case with cupcakes earlier this decade, when everyone and their dog was opening a cupcake bakery. This perplexing obsession with small sweets defied logic and held on for an impressive tenure. Marlow Moo and I even sought out the best cupcakes in the city, and found that the competition was woefully deficient. Garneau-based Whimsical Cake Studio fell somewhere in the middle of the pack. Forgettable at best.

There was little reason to return until baker extraordinaire Darcy Scott assumed the reins this past winter. Those unfamiliar with her handiwork would do well to visit her shop quickly; this is not the work of the bakery's previous owners. Case in point: cringe-worthy Red Velvet has been usurped by Vanilla Velvet. This version eschews the namesake food colouring (that imparts little other than a crimson hue to the batter) and allows the full spectrum of heady, fragrant vanilla to shine.

This is an enviable cupcake. Moist crumb, slightly chewy cap, judicious crown of ever-smooth cream cheese icing that actually tastes of cream cheese, rather than some murky and not-quite-identifiable edible oil product. God forbid. Nearly microscopic flecks of vanilla bean are speckled throughout. Each bite balances the correct ratio of cake to icing. Really, this cupcake alone is reason to revisit Whimsical.

Whimsical Cake Studio on Urbanspoon


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