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Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Faith Restored at 12 Acres

"Local" is the most overused word in the food industry. Once an indicator of something edgy and progressive, this adjective has been bandied about far too much to have impact. Indeed, the diner grows weary of every up-and-coming eatery boasting of "local" food when items that clearly hail from regions far flung from our fair city - the likes of prawns and avocado, for example - pervade the menu.The word, and everything it stands for, loses authenticity when misapplied so frequently.


St. Albert's 12 Acres, however, turns this unfortunate trend right on its head. When 12 Acres says something is local, they mean it. Nearly every item on 12 Acres' menu is sourced from a nearby farm. Those items not yet grown on this farm, explains our server, are sourced from other local producers. It is an ambitious credo - a lofty and noble goal - that restores faith in the well-worn "local" descriptor. Supper in 12 Acres' stately River House home begins with several crisp flutes of bubbly, and segues into a Pickled Salad.Here, lively fresh greens rub shoulders with piquant pickled onions and cukes. A light dill dressing weaves this melange of sweet and sour into a salad most remarkable.


Pillowy gnocchi veritably breathe with hot summer sun and subtly musky tomatoes. A large basil leaf waves skyward like a jaunty plume. A house-made hamburger tastes of beef first - not overwrought dressings or heavy-handed spices. A sizable bun is a wee bit dense and would benefit from a quick toasting, but a tumble of wedge fries reminds one that potatoes are the "best supporting role" for a reason.


A judicious crock of creme brulee requires a firm hand to crack the burnt sugar crust, granting access to the glorious custard mantle within. Though the air is smotheringly hot tonight, the ambient conditions are instantly forgotten in this haven of home-grown food.

The well-worn culture of everything local may come and go, as do so many things in life, but true commitment to knowing where one's food came from is timeless. 12 Acres knows where they came from. More importantly, they know where they are going.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Canada's 100 Best Restaurants - Rge Rd

Rge Rd, when it first opened, reminded our fair city that food came from somewhere, be it ground, leaf, hoof or feather. It did so without being preachy, elitist, or smug and brought barn and farmhouse paraphernalia to an urbane city street without resorting to kitsch or contrived country-fried contraband. These are, by no means, easy feats.

Rge Rd cracked Air Canada's En Route magazine's "Canada's best new restaurants" list a year ago, and the buzz has continued - rightfully so - ever since. Rge Rd also earned spot in Maclean's magazine's "Canada's 100 Best" issue this spring. Fame is a paradox, however; at once a microscope and a halogen spotlight. Indeed, one's modus operandi is dissected with near-surgical precision, while the inevitable spotlight brings a relentless mix of well-wishers and coat-tail riders. How, then, does a restaurant whose very existence is rooted in rural simplicity maintain its set of governing values?


The answer is surprisingly straightforward: keep it simple and use what the land has to offer. Rge Rd's penchant for showcasing unexpected ingredients begins with a tiny shower of orange flowers across this evening's "Kitchen Board." The contents of this hearty slab of wood change often and reflect the ephemeral nature of farm fare. Tonight, a pair of salubrious sliders sport red onion-ring halos at jaunty angles. A doll-sized iron crock cradles creamy fish casserole. Crispy flatbread provides an ideal vehicle for ferrying said fish from plate to mouth. Scotch Eggs are a nod to rustic British snacks: crisp crumb crust, ground meat mantle, and creamy egg core.


A little surprise arrives midway between appetizers and entrees: a tumble of spongy morel mushrooms kissed by cream and cradled by a snake-like grilled green bean. The fungi veritably sigh with promises of spring and hint of a recent existence in damp, earthy undergrowth. This off-menu treat will be spoken of long after the meal concludes.


Supper is almost anticlimactic after the morel mushrooms' perfect simplicity. Halibut with garlic ramps and mascarpone gnocchi (left), however, pairs sensationally smooth potato dumplings with buttery, flaky flatfish. Ramps impart little zings of tantalizing bitterness. Pheasant (right) is a tangible reminder of why dark meat must not be scorned in favour of light. The bird's rich and resonant flesh finds punchy, acidic sweetness among black garlic juice and tomatoes. A triangular pheasant galette encases further pheasant with tender onions, granting the fowl status as both lead role and supporting actor.

Rge Rd's great strength lies in its alchemic ability to refract humble ingredients, be they offal or flowers, into culinary synergy. All ingredients are treated with respect; offal never defaults into shock-value and flowers never become airy-fairy nonsense.  Decor is evocative and effective. Service is honest and never effusive. This, truly, is the intersection of farm, food, and friends.

Rge Rd on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Reach out and Touch Faith at The Burger's Priest

This, the year 2015, is fixing to be the "Year of the Hamburger/Hotdog." One barely blinks and another "Coming Soon" sign proclaims the imminent arrival of a quirky-gourmet hotdog stand, or promises to reinvent (and restore faith in) the burger as we know it. It is scarcely May, and these quasi-upscale but deliberately down-home joints are spreading throughout the city.


It would seem, then, that The Burger's Priest has tall promises to fill, given that their motto is "redeeming the burger one at a time." The place, just off Jasper and 109 Street, is judiciously emblazoned with Biblical references in both English and Greek, but cleverly treads the line between being cheeky and overdone. Burgers are named after various roles in the Papist roster and can be customized with various toppings. One couldn't help but wonder, though, if T.B.P.'s chops would deliver.


The aptly-named Priest brings a beef patty topped with melted cheese, a deep-fried portobella (which, on its own, is the "Option" burger) and - at my request - lettuce, tomatoes, ketchup and mustard. The tomato immediately stands out. It is ripe! Thank the heavens. It oughtn't to be the case, but woefully underripe tomatoes plague too many Edmonton eateries. Not "The Priest." This benevolent omen ushers in a burger characterized by flavourful, juicy meat, an especially satisfying fried 'shroom, and a delightful crown of melted cheese.


The Vatican takes tongue-in-cheek indulgence to a different level entirely. Not one, but two grilled cheese sandwiches carry two beef patties that sport even more melted cheese. Though the cheese is more of the Kraft Single than the vintage cheddar variety, it quickly becomes ooey, gooey, nostalgic fun and reminds one of the grilled cheese sandwiches made by the inevitable best friend's mom in grade two. Though it is a bit difficult to finish this calorrific treat, each bite really is one step closer to hamburger heaven.

Burgers may well have their day in the sun this year, but The Burger's Priest quickly converted even the staunchest of non-believers. Reach out and touch faith.



The Burger's Priest on Urbanspoon

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

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