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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

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Under the Radar at Island Curry Takeaways

It is 2015. A week and a half in to the new year. Predictions hang, like puffs of warm breath, unanswered in the winter air. These ponderings range from the whimsical (e.g., Is "ugly food" in?) to the practical (e.g., Have food trucks overshot their carrying capacity?) to the poignantly urgent (e.g., How will the city of Edmonton address downtown's growing food desert?). 

Virtually every diner-cum-food blogger/writer wonders, up and beyond these musings, what this year will bring in terms of new restaurants. We all wait, like sharks scenting prey in the water, for that telltale hint that something new is about to happen, and race to see who will be first to "scoop" the joint.

The decidedly unglamorous restaurants are too often spurned. The family-run cafe with the dowdy, outdated decor is overlooked in favour of the next big media preview. That place that's been around forever, the one that still serves solid chow after all these years, never makes it into the ranks of user-review websites like Yelp or UrbanSpoon. Nor do these under-the-radar spots beget social media frenzies, as if constant presence in this realm is a reliable indicator of proficiency. Such is the case for Island Curry Takeaways, its home no more exotic a locale than a desolate Fort Road strip mall.

It is dark and quiet tonight, and Island Curry Takeaway's photo-adorned windows gaze blankly over a mostly empty parking lot. Inside is equally quiet, punctuated only by the mechanical whirrings of kitchen equipment. Congenial owners and an intriguing menu chase away any lingering doubts, though, and soon a steaming platter of Curry Goat appears at the table. Here, a kaleidoscope of spices turn, roll and bloom. Simple white rice tames the fire (spice level is negotiable, but "medium" is recommended). Devilish bones necessitate dental dexterity for extricating the juicy, gamey goat, and it is well worth the effort.

Smoky-sweet Jerk Chicken mingles with cool, crunchy coleslaw and a few sprigs of cilantro. Robust rice and beans underneath and toothsome and satisfying. A bite of chicken mixed with creamy coleslaw and al dente rice is, quite simply, just right.

But it won't elicit frenzied instagram posts or races to see who blogs about it first, and that is a pity. The owner-operators' names are unknown and won't be name-dropped in earshot of others. It isn't fair, but it is characteristic of this era of food/foodie culture.

Indeed, the freshly-minted can be spectacular and beguiling. Intoxicating in their vortex of rapid-fire tweets and photos. Mesmerizing in their culture of quasi-celebrity bestowed on both writer and chef. Deliriously cyclic in the trading of good reviews in exchange for edible rewards and recognition. Time and circumstance will dictate the long term tenure of the new and flashy. Certainly, some will settle at a comfortable cruising altitude, but others will fall to earth as quickly as they appeared. It more than behooves the writer to give long-established restaurants their due, for there is good reason why they are still here.

Island Curry Takeaways on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Ampersand 27 - Choose your own adventure

Hit the "rewind" button for a few seconds and one will arrive at an era where "charcuterie" was a concept both mispronounced and misunderstood. Really, was it little more than the constituents of a sandwich, laid askew on a wooden board for all to see?

Such naive times, this era of "B.C." - i.e., "before charcuterie."

Fortunately, meat, cheese and condiment pairings gained credibility as meals in their own right. Indeed, selecting a chosen few to create individually relevant ratios of these ingredients is half the fun, and one need not wander afar to find good charcuterie these days - in this era of enlightenment.

Enter Ampersand 27.Enter their Whyte Avenue space (the former Murrieta's digs) and it is a bit like the Hobbit's Shire on acid. Over-sized botanical lamps. Chairs, tables and curves in the room that evoke glacially-deposited boulders on the forest floor. Cross-sections of antediluvian logs. Twinkling ceiling lights that capture a swatch of night sky and bring it indoors.. Only the flat screen TV playing the Fireplace Channel seems curiously - anachronistically - out of place. A vessel of Black Hills Syrah is open and light, but breathes of heady red fruits, their bosoms heaving in a far-off summer night. Ampersand's menu is as idiosyncratic as its dining room, and skips across a smattering of smaller sharing plates, larger things like flatbreads and pork chops, and a choose-your-own adventure of charcuterie.

One is given carte blanche for possible combinations of meat, cheese, pickles, condiments, and bread that range from as proletariat as baguette and brie to as esoteric as lavash and lamb merguez. This adventure, after considerable deliberation, arrives on a hefty wooden tray marked by ancient growth rings. Duck Rillet initially resembles a cup of white pudding with berries on top, but an exploratory excavation quickly reveals tendrils and shreds of fowl so tender that they sigh and effortlessly melt into bread. Pity that the baguette is at once flabby and dry, with no structural integrity whatsoever. Fortunately, this ill-fated baguette will prove to be the meal's only flat note. Russet sticks of pickled carrots sign with sinus-clearing acidity, while pungent Balunchon cheese evokes unapologetic barnyard sweats and furtive fumbles behind a Gallic chicken coop. Chalky Tellegio, in contrast is coy and a bit nutty, benefiting from a swipe of spicy blueberry-port chutney. Bresaola and Proscuitto are bovine and porcine antitheses of each other: one dry and sweet, the other supple and seductive.

The Chosen Adventure continues with the arrival of "Sea Shore." Selected from the "Share and Share Alike" section of the menu, one isn't initially sure what to expect from an entity described as "Scallop, prawn, smoked trout brandade, 'sand' and sea asparagus." Sea Shore, in its own good time, proves to be a visually impressive melange of deftly seared scallops, chubby prawns curled in repose, nori-wrapped smoky trout pate, and granular sand that, after a bit of prodding, is revealed to be crushed up shrimp chips. Sprigs of juniper-like sea asparagus and whispers of foam complete the concept, the latter of which melts away like a juicy secret in the right company.

Though Ampersand's menu treads a considerable stretch of territory, the Chosen Adventure of charcuterie reaffirms the timely notion that meat, cheese and condiments are so much more than misplaced sandwich ingredients. In fact, it hardly warrants thinking about a time when charcuterie was erudite territory - mispronounced and (to quote the very quotable George W. Bush) misunderestimated.

Ampersand 27 on Urbanspoon


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