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Thursday, 12 November 2015

Into the Wild at The Woodrack Cafe

Antlers are gorgeous. I state this not because I’ve spent the better part of 12 years studying caribou, but because they are beautiful paradoxes of delicacy and strength. My own collection of “sheds” (i.e., antlers you find lying on the ground after they’ve been shed) is lined up neatly on my balcony. However, the subjective nature of outdoor-themed décor can rear its ugly and petty head without warning. Case in point: I received a snide letter from my condo board insisting that I remove the “animal parts” from my deck immediately, because “deer horns” were expressly forbidden…and then they quoted some obscure bylaw.

[Cue rubbing of temples here.]

Where do I even begin. “Animal parts” implied that I had a fly-ridden carcass tied to the railing and, furthermore, deer do not have horns! True, antlers as decorative items can quickly devolve into a garish, testosterone-steeped, mountain-man fantasy like Cabela’s. Or, they can be quirky and classy companions to a fine latte, like at The Woodrack Cafe.

The Woodrack Café fills a much needed void in Edmonton’s coffee scene, creating connectivity between Whyte Ave’s caffeine-fueld hoopla and the south side’s Italian Centre Shop and D’Amore’s Mercato. Outwardly, Woodrack finds its home in a shiny professional building, but that quickly gives way to a serene wood-beamed room that reimagines Alberta’s wilderness identity indoors. The owners’ respect for the natural world is apparent and admirable. Driftwood art adorns the wall, painted antlers dangle from the ceiling, and ceramic mugs keep vintage books company on a multiplicity of shelves.

The bounty of Woodrack’s open kitchen appears in a tantalizing glass cooler. Whoopee Pies abound. These were once thought to displace cupcakes as treat du jour, but I am glad that they did not. Such stratospheric popularity invariably breeds an inferior product. Woodrack’s baked goods are anything but. A jalapeno cheddar Whoopee Pie is an ecstatic, edible wake-up call, while a slice of strawberry basil loaf is fragrant, moist, and generously flecked with berries and herbs that sing of long-ago summer.  The kitchen’s adventurous streak also appears in the guise of baked hybrids like duffins (a doughnut x muffin creation) and brookies (the love child of a brownie and a cookie). All of these are washed down with a bold yet milky latte that chases away any residual late-autumn chills.

Sitting at The Woodrack Café feels more like nestling into a soft couch at your best friend’s cabin in the woods than experiencing the sensory overload of a pedantic urban coffee shop. Such respite is welcome and reassuring in our urban fray. Lip-smacking baked goods and well-pulled espresso complete the circuit of edible and psychological solace, and the antlers are a bonus. And yes, my antler collection remains defiant on my balcony.

Woodrack Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Canada's 100 Best Restaurants - Rostizado by Tres Carnales

“Los Tres” have captured lightning in a bottle. Their firstborn, Tres Carnales, captured hearts and stomachs nationwide not long after it took its first, nascent steps into Canada’s culinary realm. Rostizado, the second-born but equally talented sibling, secured a spot in Macleans magazine’s “Canada’s 100 Best” and was a contender for EnRoute Magazine’s “Best New Restaurants of 2015.” Closer to home, one is hard-pressed to find an evening where Rostizado’s chairs are empty. Instead, the animated conversations of diners undulate with streams of modern jazz, Latin funk, and flashes of flame from the open kitchen. Fairy light-trimmed construction cranes swivel outside and hint of incipient change, and one cannot help but wonder how much more boisterous Rostizado could possibly be once the nearby Ice District is complete.

I’ve no doubt that Rostizado would surf its perfect wave irrespective of outside forces, for the original Tres – Dani, Chris, and Edgar – have crafted a menu of victuals that handily challenges long-standing presumptions of what constitutes Mexican food. Who knew that rotisserie chicken was so popular south of the border, or that a skillet of melted cheese could be so noble? The entire menu confirms that everything shilled by the bygone Chihuahua of dubious fast food is wrong. Today, Rostizado launches a new menu. Queso Fundido is a cheese-lover’s fantasy come through. Melted mozza and Monterey Jack hold together spicy chorizo and toothsome roasted potatoes. House-made flour tortillas are as flaky as pie pastry, but far more flexible. Lively white sangria washes everything down quite nicely.

Scallops Aguachile (upper right) look deceptively airy and cool, but pack an assertive punch thanks to a sprinkle of diced habanero chilies, reined in by slices of crisp jicama and supple scallop. Pancita y Almejas (lower right) riffs on a traditionally Portuguese dish by punching up steamed clams with Serrano chilies and unctuous pork belly. Camarones al Mojo de Ajo (left) tosses buxom prawns with caramelized garlic; the entire works are nudged into the stratosphere by a few squeezes of charred lime.

Sope de Rajas (lower right) repurposes a French quiche with Mesoamerican flair. With flavours reminiscent of Tres Carnales’ tacos rajas con crema, this masa-crusted creation cradles onions, kale, smoky poblano chilies, and cream. Costillas en Salsa Verde (lower left) are a welcome switch from the usual sugar-and-tomato oversauced ribs. Rostizado’s interpretation anoints, but does not smother, a hearty dose of baby back ribs with zesty salsa verde. Those who dig to the bottom of the plate are rewarded with a surprise helping of additional pork morsels. Vegetales Rostizados (top), for those who prefer protein from a non-animal source (or for those who need an excuse to eat their veggies), presents a tumble of zucchini, mushrooms, garbanzo beans and onions with a ribbon of Sikil Pak – the Mayan answer to hummus. 

Rotisserie beef (bottom) joins menu mainstays Rosti-Puerco and Rosti-Pollo, completing the protein trifecta. Served with a traffic light of salsas and potatoes (upper left) so divinely crispy that they could be a dish of their own, the just-medium rare flesh lounges in its own drippings and veritably begs to be eaten. Pastel de Tres Leches (upper right) is worth the gustatory marathon. The “three milks” (i.e., cream, evaporated, and condensed milk) that permeate this golden sponge cake render it irrevocably moist, rich and beguiling. Rostizado sweetens an already done deal by topping this quintessentially Latin dessert with corn ash whipped cream and macerated pineapple. 

Rostizado's captured lightning manifests as memorably delectable Latin dishes spun with an electric yet sophisticated atmosphere, all rendered approachable and human by the three owners' engaging personalities. None of it feels contrived, superficial, or merely paying lip service to whatever happens to be trendy. No, trends come and go and are as fickle as their sheep-like disciples. Talent, like that of Rostizado, is timeless.

Rostizado - By Tres Carnales Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Balance at Nongbu Korean Eatery

Korean cuisine isn't the rare bird it once was. The Hermit Kingdom's edible heritage appears frequently on Edmonton's culinary radar with, at the very least, one dozen establishments cooking up the likes of bulgogi and kimchee.

But does familiarity, at the very worst breed contempt, or at the very best, breed complacency? The latter are certainly crowd-pleasers, but neither barbecued beef nor fermented cabbage are catch-all definitions of Korean cuisine. This reductive approach does a great disservice to both diner and chef.

Fortunately, Nongbu Korean Eatery opened earlier this year in a coveted spot just off Whyte Avenue. Here, a lofty, naturally-lit, ethereal wood-paneled room serves up coveted dishes that a Grandmother might make as comfort food, rather than an ethnic party trick. A concise bottle of Bek Jeju (pictured at left) opens the meal with sweet, thin, floral notes. Roasted corn tea - and not green tea, which is rarely served in Korea - smells heavenly. Somewhere between popcorn and polenta.

Supper progresses to Cold Squid SoMyeon (left) and Kimbap (right). Squid SoMyeon contrasts assertively spicy squid tentacles with thin, cold noodles. The latter counters the seafood's heat, while the former whets the appetite for more tea and Bek Jeju. The dish's heat builds with time, as opposed to a one-shot incendiary blast with little to no afterburn. Sesame seeds add just the right amount of toothsome nuttiness. Kimbap, on the other hand, are refreshing and savoury. Glistening seaweed sheets wrap together asparagus, rice, carrots and mushrooms. Korea's answer to maki proves both portable and delectable.

Seafood Pa-Jeon and Bo Ssam round out the evening's offering. Pa-Jeon is a pan-fried cake of shrimp, squid and scallions, all held together by crisp-edged, piping hot griddlecake. Lashings of spicy sauce are for those who dare. Bo Ssam are a cool antidote; these do-it-yourself lettuce wraps can be as full of juicy roast pork as one likes.

Indeed, Nongbu's menu gracefully embodies the balance inherent to Korean cuisine. The kitchen's even hand ensures that no single ingredient outshines another. Instead, Nongbu weaves together a multitude of flavours that create a tapestry as rich as its mother country's history.

Nongbu Korean Eatery Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Rogue Wave Coffee Co. - Survival of the Fittest

Edmonton's coffee scene has diversified and proliferated - Coffee Bureau, Barking Buffalo, Lock Stock, Iconoclast, and that is just scratching the surface - and yet barely sates our endless thirst. All occupy similar, but distinct niches - indicative of a diverse urban culinary environment. Indeed, diverse environments permit specialization. Greater environmental diversity begets vacant niches, which in turn beget the evolution of highly specialized entities to occupy them.

Rogue Wave Coffee Co. (appropriately named, I might add) is settling into its niche in the nascently cool Queen Mary Park. A string of older warehouses have been given new personalities with bright paint and quirky signage. Though but a few blocks from bustling Jasper and 124 Street, pedestrian traffic is sparse. A blackboard sandwich board helpfully points towards Rogue's propped-open door, through which a highly specialized world of coffee awaits.

Rogue's space evokes a late-19th century, complete with laboratory equipment, blonde wood shelves, formulae scratched onto a black board, and glassware brimming with frothing brews. Heavy windows are propped open, letting in an autumn-tinged breeze. A bicycle leans nonchalantly in a corner. Only the soundtrack seems deliciously anachronistic, seguing from Men at Work, to A-Ha, to Michael Jackson.

Rogue Wave's focus is clear. There are no muffins, panini, wraps or other distractions beckoning from the counter. No, Rogue pulls a damn fine cappuccino that balances heft and froth and lingers like the melody of a favourite song. There are a few other permutations of coffee, both hot and cold, plus other quaffable entities, and that's it. This hyperspecificity bespeaks our city's readiness to embrace cafes that are proud to not pander to the lowest common denominator through tedious pages of half-baked dishes, or syrup-laden concoctions that scarcely resemble coffee at the best of times. If entities like coffee shops are products of environmental selective pressures, then Rogue Wave is a fine example of Edmonton's culinary evolution.

Click to add a blog post for Rogue Wave Coffee Co. on Zomato

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Summer Nights at Ikki Izakaya

It's a resonantly, unforgivably hot night on Jasper Avenue. Heat radiates from metal and concrete in a prolonged exhale. But it's a fine night for drivers to show off their tuned-up classic cars, trotting them out like pedigreed horses for the few short months when the roads aren't bedeviled with stones and ice. It's an equally fine night to settle over sake and Japanese bar snacks at Ikki Izakaya.

A step through Ikki's door, at the base of the Illuminada Building (and I cannot help but chuckle and think of "Illuminati") quickly breaches a temperature gradient that leads to another, calmer world. Ikki joins but one other izakaya in Edmonton. Light-hearted J-Pop fills the narrow room from top to bottom, bouncing off ceramics and Japanese newspapers. Drinks are 50% of an izakaya's existence (snacks are the other half), and a Sake-Tini cuts through the evening heat with a clear, smooth wave of lemon and cucumber.

Ikki's menu is a thorough assortment of lighter fare, starting with Beef Tataki (top). Six petals of rare beef fan out from a onion-cloud centre, and rest upon a citrus ponzu base. Meat is rarely the focus of Japanese cuisine; it is used to provide flavour rather than substance. Here, though, it owns the spotlight. Takoyaki (lower left) are plum-full of tender octopus. The bonito flakes on top dance as though they are alive. The Albertan's Roll (lower right) wraps crisp lettuce, thinly sliced beef, and nori in toothsome rice. A soy sauce and hotsauce sentence bespeaks the Tokyo-born owner's affinity to her chosen home.

Hire-Sake comes together when a torched blowfish fin passes through flame and is capped for a few moments in a ceramic cup of sake. Rich "umami" - somewhere in the realm of dark mushrooms, well-marbled meat, or a smoky summer evening - permeates the beverage, rendering it bracing and ineffable.

Motsuni Stew, an izakaya archetype, finds silky tofu sharing quarters with sweet stewed pork. Leek and ginger mingle with sonorous miso broth. Small wonder that this dish is epically popular on the other side of the Pacific: it is tremendously satisfying. Dessert, after this rogue's gallery of late-night Japanese snacks, is a whimsical fondue of green tea chocolate, marshmallows, potato crisps, and apple slices. Different combinations of each allow one to customize the ratio of crunchy to soft, and salty to sweet.

Hot summer nights will come and go, and the pedigreed cars will soon retreat to their garages for the season, but I have a feeling that Ikki Izakaya will be here for a great many seasons.

Click to add a blog post for Ikki Izakaya on Zomato

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.

Click to add a blog post for 12 Acres on Zomato

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


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