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Wednesday, 9 April 2014

True to Form at Bodega Tapas & Wine Bar

Words come and go. Their tenure might last for decades, or even centuries, but words can and will fall out of favour more rapidly than they accrued widespread usage. Remember when people used to say that things were "rad"? Or "far out"? Slang terms in particular, once their era has trundled across the landscape, merged with the distance horizon and gone the way of the VCR, the Edsel, and the chasmosaurus, sound almost laughably quaint.

Culinary terms, in a textbook example of parallel evolution, vacillate through epochs of fashion and repose. The word "tapas" constitutes a case study. Few terms, as of late, have been splashed across menus with such self-assured verve, as if widespread usage will ensure longevity. Traditionally, "tapas" refers to a specific genre of snacks prevalent within Latin-Mediterranean cultures. This word spiked in popularity over the past decade or so, and now one needn't look far for items served "tapas-style." A consequence of this ephemeral popularity, though, is that true tapas - like one might encounter on the Iberian peninsula - are hard to find.


Bodega Wine Bar and Tapas fills this niche just in time. Bodega inhabits the ground floor space of downtown stalwart Sabor Divino. It occupies a laid-back, rustic space replete with bricks, wood, and a traditional Portuguese rooster. True-to-form tapas live here. An alliterative name is just part of Piri Piri Prawns' appeal. Here, an impossibly plump trio of shrimp sport charred tails, the smoke of which weaves together mild flesh and fiery piri-piri chili-laced aioli.


Braised Pork Belly presents a perfect porcine cube. Strata of unctuously crispy fat alternate with seamlessly fragrant meat. It is an unabashed swine sandwich in all the best ways possible.


Patatas Bravas (foreground) and Piri-Piri Chicken (background) further the evening's theme of traditional Iberian-Lusitanian fare. Patatas Bravas are fingerling potatoes that veritably pop with taut, crisp skins to expose steaming, mealy mash. Very little dressing is required to adorn the spuds' innate and gentle flavour. Piri-Piri Chicken pairs zippy and torrid pepper aioli with fowl; delicious and perfectly cooked, though the sauce paired better with the aforementioned prawns.


Grilled Eggplant is a beautiful little package. A supple eggplant envelope cradles a mantle of tomato and an inner core of vibrant chevre. Pine nuts orbit nearby. It is compact, but does not compromise flavour in favour of portability.

Loose-handed application of the term "tapas" to anything small will eventually fade from the common consciousness, as is the inevitable fate of any trendy term. Fortunately, the deeper, original meaning of this descriptor will remain intact via the culinary craftwork of little spots like Bodega.


Bodega Tapas and Wine Bar on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Bar Bricco - No Holds Barred

No reservations. No nonsense. No holds barred.

These three descriptors, when taken together, nicely sum up Bar Bricco. Bar Bricco is right downtown, the nearest neighbour of Corso 32. Both share the same mastermind, the incomparable Daniel Costa. Similarities end there. Bricco trades Corso's bare incandescent bulbs and pared-down simplicity for thundering blackness punctuated by a backlit bar framed by pitch-black, honeycombed wallpaper of sorts. Not that Bar Bricco isn't underscored by simplicity of food and drink, but the honeycomb - I'm quite certain - is not accidental. Few things in this realm are left to accident, chance, or happenstance.


Black honeycomb is apropos; on its maiden evening, Bar Bricco breathes and throbs with the pulse of downtown. New downtown - not the old one where everyone packed up, drove home, and shut their garages and drapes tightly to lock away the outside world, leaving naught but desolate streets that waited, in vain, for rebirth. No; tonight, the evening begins with a shot of herbal amaro that precedes a platter of Culatello. Akin to proscuitto, culatello is finer, more fragrant and more fragile - if indeed that were possible.


Eggs Cacio e Pepe arrive with a basket of crisp, toothsome crostini. It would be grossly erroneous to intimate that this dish is a re-imagining of eggs on toast. Hardly. Such comparisons are specious. Barely-scrambled eggs are dusted with cheese and pepper. Nothing more, nothing less.


As the night swoons on, wedges of Pincion cheese impart cheeky contradictions that vacillate between crumbly and creamy, brazen yet demure, and self-assured yet impressionable. This cheese hails from northeastern Italy. Veneto, to be exact. Pincion has surely found a home on Jasper Avenue.

By now, crowds rub shoulder to shoulder, unknowingly choreographed by the infrasonic interaction of music, food and drink. There are no reservations, but no one minds. Everything, as the crescendo of animated conversation arcs, subsides, and suggests, led up to this point. It wasn't by chance either.


Bar Bricco on Urbanspoon

Friday, 21 March 2014

District Coffee Co. - Hip to be Square

"Hipsters ruin everything."

Plaid shirts, horn-rimmed glasses, goo-gaws of yesteryear recycled into ironic statements that, really, aren't statements because they are out to prove that they've got nothing to prove. (For further reference, please refer to Kate Beaton's comic above.) Basically, old things - a la "Dads are the Original Hipsters" are reinvented, repurposed and retrofitted - and this drives some people crazy.


Case in point: I overheard a poorly muffled utterance about this very topic at District Coffee Co. last week. Are there plaid shirts on the premises? At any given time, yes. Are old plates and spoons - the sort that your elderly neighbour when you were growing up kept as keepsakes from various locales on a display rack on the wall - comfortable among the slick and sleek espresso machine? Yes. Is the soundtrack esoteric? Of course. Does the summation of these ingredients prove, or disprove anything?


Maybe yes, maybe no.

It is unfortunate that preconceived notions preclude certain sectors of society for appreciating food and drink for what they truly are: food and drink. Nothing more, nothing less. District Coffee Co., though having been in existence for a scant few weeks, offers sweets and coffee that possess maturity beyond their years. Savoury dishes abound as well, though I've yet to try them.


A lemon meringue tart (pictured at the forefront) and a marshmallow rice krispie square (pictured at rear) are case studies in contrasts. The lemon tart comprises a scale replica of an old-school lemon meringue pie. Puckery-sweet lemon curd boasts a fragile yet study egg white crown with just a hint of toastiness. Buttery pastry keeps the whole works intact. The marshmallow square evokes long-ago camping trips and school lunches, all recapitulated in a mash-up of crunch and nostalgic goo.


An espresso macchiato is short and strong, just as it should be, and arrives boasting a "City of Wetaskiwin" spoon for stirring.  The java hails from Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters in Calgary, and is bright, assertive, but never jarring.

Was it relevant that rice krispies and lemon meringue could be regarded as "retro" and, therefore, ironic when juxtaposed into a modern context? That is a matter of opinion. My opinion, however, is that good food is never ironic.


District Coffee Co. on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

D'Amore's Italian Mercato - A Little Amore for the South Side

Independent grocery stores, though notable exceptions buck this rule, have been conspicuously absent from Edmonton's landscape. Indeed, it's all too easy to succumb to the Big Box Stores' siren song of low prices and "everything from a twelve pack of winter tires to a case of peaches" under one roof. This mentality underscores this city's historic overemphasis on suburban development rather than TLC for inner city neighbourhoods, and reliance on private vehicles instead of public transit. These individual concepts are all woven together, like the strands on a braid, and it takes more than several generations (and many terms in public office) to reweave these tresses into a 'do wholly new.


But, as easy as it is scoff at this trope, a quiet revolution is brewing. "Three years ago, something changed." This statement pervades Edmonton's food community, as if a culinary climate change instigated a return to simpler, hands-on fare. Small, meticulously honed restaurants popped up; antidote to a glaring, blaring plethora of franchises. Independent grocers and deli followed. D'Amore's Italian Mercato will be part of this velvet revolution. The original D'Amore's Italian Deli blossomed on the north side as far back as the late 1970s - a family run affair passed from father to son. I had the great pleasure of meeting Albert D'Amore when I wrote for Vue Weekly, and marveled as his uncanny ability to fit a grocery section, a deli, frozen foods (all house-made, I might add), catering, and a sandwich shop into a space of little more than 1000 square feet.


D'Amore's Italian Mercato brightens up a strip mall on a southern stretch of 99th Street. Shelves of tomato sauces, bags of pasta both straight and curlicued, gleaming bottles of olive oils, and a drool-worthy deli selection of cured meets and cheese are but one component of this sleek market. An entire wall of freezers holds the likes of eggplant parmigiana, lasagna, chicken cutlets, and tiramisu (later sampling will declare the tiramisu as more than worthy of adulation). All are hand-made and ready to be cooked at home.


A gorgeous forno pizza oven calls attention to the restaurant side of this operation. The original sandwiches from D'Amore's north side are represented, but pizza beckons on this dreary evening in early spring. A Caprese Salad swoons with sweet, milky bocconcini and commendably ripe half-moons of tomato. Piquant crumbles of mixed, dried herbs take the place of fresh basil in this incarnation.


Pizza commands respect. The "Mercato" special cradles black olives, artichokes, ribbons of salami, and the lightest blanket of cheese atop a tender, perfectly thin and perfectly round, crust. Not a spot is overdone - no black bubbles besmirch this creation. Each bite is a gustatory symphony of sweet and salty, mild and spicy. This room was just made to welcome joyous throngs of the hungry - those that are hungry for change as well as for pizza.


D'Amore's Mercato on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Land of Fire, Ice, and Fine Feasts

Iceland, though half an ocean and more than a few icebergs away, felt closer than ever this week. Iceland Naturally, which promotes travel to this mid-Atlantic volcanic isle, instigated a joyous and meticulously organized celebration of Icelandic food, drink and music to celebrate Icelandair's maiden voyage from the Capital City to the Land of Fire and Ice. One facet of this celebration featured an exposé of Icelandic cuisine at Characters Fine Dining, with internationally lauded chef Hákon Már Örvarsson teaming up with Characters' chef Shonn Oborowsky.


Pickled herring opened the evening with an integral, sunny disposition that bespoke of cold, saline waters and a faraway sun, all recapitulated by chewy and sweet rye bread sporting a jaunty cap of tender herring, tart green apples, and feathery spring onions.


Grilled langoustines - the buxom, older and wiser sister to prawns - shone with golden lashings of butter that caressed each curve with knowing certainty. One can think of countless dishes that would be elevated exponentially merely by replacing over-used prawns with langoustines.


Cured salmon stood out, thanks to even-handed preparation with Brennivin, which is a strong-as-nails distilled liquour that is Iceland's de facto, official beverage. Though Brennivin straight out of the bottle is strong enough to stun a horse, it cleverly allows the velvety, lightly smoky salmon to prevail.


Cod fritters, though a nod to one of Iceland's main fisheries, were more textural than flavourful. These spheres were a duality of mealy, salty centres enrobed by crunchy, crispy crust. Fried seaweed crisps were a welcome surprise - not unlike nori on steroids.


Harfiskur presented cod in another guise; this time, dried. Such a provision would have, theoretically, lasted forever in the days before proper refrigeration. It required concerted effort to eat more than a morsel at a time, though a thick layer of butter helped to reveal the cod's subtle sweetness, the longer one chewed.


Arctic char was, quite simply, magical. First cold-smoked and then cooked until barely done, this northern cousin to salmon and trout floated on the merest dregs of dijon and rested under tiny puffs of horseradish. Adjectives seem insufficient; it tasted like the north, like home, and like memories.


Unabashedly gamey lamb furthered this trend by sharing quarters with roasted carrots and rutabagas. Coniferous hints of juniper and vivid purple whispers of blueberry spoke of the beasts' natal countryside.


Skyr, the evening's final offering, presented another quintessentially Icelandic food. Indeed, Icelanders have enjoyed skyr long before the meteoric rise in the popularity of yogurt-like foods and their artisan cheese cousins. Here, skyr appeared as a lofty and almost imperceptibly tangy mousse, sharing the plate with a finely textured snowball of skyr ice cream. Quivering apple jelly and fruity-acidic rhubarb compote bounced their extroverted personalities off the introverted skyr, with all parties involved emerging victorious.

My tastebuds might have traveled to Iceland long before the rest of me will, but I must commend and thank Chefs Hákon and Shonn for an evening of fire, ice and fine feasts.


Characters on Urbanspoon







Read Marlow Moo's experience here. Skål, Moo!

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Identity Crisis at The Glass Monkey

One cannot force an identity upon a restaurant. It must evolve organically and iteratively. Identity must meld with every aspect: decor, personnel and, of course, food and drink. It is easy to rattle off names of restaurants with well-defined identities, for one can "feel" the coherence. It is less easy to single out the reasons that an eatery lacks a clear identity; one tends to file such experiences under the realm of "something was amiss." The Glass Monkey occupies the former Lendrum haunt of Jack's Grill, but is burdened by the presence of its predecessor.


Parsnip Puree promises a nutty intermingling of root vegetable and hazelnut, underscored with velveteen mascarpone, but the puree's icy temperature belies a recent voyage out of the refrigerator. It's a pity; were this dish warm, the flavours would sing, but instead, they land on a flat note. It's like having a bit of cold Thanksgiving dinner out of the fridge, long after any last breath of warmth has withered away. Tuna Salad (pictured at rear) fares better. Equal parts tuna, capers, artichokes, and eggplant live in happy, salty synchrony.


Ricotta pleases with chunky apricot preserves and elfin, toasted sunflower seeds. Temperature, as with the parsnip puree, is problematic, and this unfortunate recurrence clouds the ability to perceive nuances within this delicate preparation.


Olive Oil-Poached Squid furthers the theme of temperature mismatch. The decapod is barely lukewarm and is lost amidst a murky sea of fennel and black-eyed peas. No dominant flavour emerges.


Chicken Yakitori, at least, arrives piping hot. The tender meat is lightly charred, avidly juicy, and reveling in the company of a grilled scallion.


Pork Sausage saves the day. An implacable duet of juicy links crescendo with sweet meat and finish with a playful nip of black pepper. A delightful tangle of caramelized onions add notes of honey, while red pepper relish lends ruddy acidity. A warm - thank goodness - dune of Isaac Hayes-smooth potato mash would be an enviable nibble all on its own.


Chocolate Cake, unfortunately, returns to the precedent set by the earlier courses. While billed as "warm" and "molten," the cake is neither. Rather, the semi-solid chocolate interior oozes out rather half-heartedly., while the tepid exterior is bitter and overly dense.


Bread Pudding fares somewhat better, but is chokingly sweet to the point of inducing hyperglycemia where no such condition existed previously. Raisins are a-plenty and rum is abundant, but sugar keeps this dessert in a stranglehold.

The Glass Monkey lacks clear identity. The menu, quite literally, is all over the map with no connectivity among Yakitori, Feta, Pizza, and so forth. This severe disconnect affects every aspect of these dishes, from glaring temperature discrepancies to injudicious contradictions of ingredients. Moreover, a number of menu items were prefaced with "Jack's Grill Feta" or "Jack's Grill Somethingorother," and were clearly salvaged from the previous incarnation's roster of recipes. This does little to bolster the Monkey's identity. To the contrary; clinging to dishes that are so obviously named for a different restaurant is wholly ineffectual. The Glass Monkey's identity has yet to coalesce.


Glass Monkey on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Faith-Off: Korean Fried Chicken

Certain food items are often ruined by fast food institutions, in that we are saturated and inundated with supersized portions of half-assed quality. This scenario certainly applies to fried chicken; redemption, however, has arrived in the earthly guise of Korean fried chicken. Korean fried chicken differs from its North American counterpart in numerous ways, not the least of which includes the welcome application of sticky, spicy and sweet, sesame-studded sauce.


Fortunately, there are at least two (and purportedly more) places in Edmonton in which to procure this most fabulous of fowl. Coco Deep Fried Chicken, though a bit vexing to find in a south side strip mall, trumps all others with unrequited, unabashed crunch. Coco's miraculously textured batter stays crisp under a glossy blanket of peppery sauce, which tends towards the fiery end of the heat spectrum. Somehow, the meat stays firm and moist, the sauce stays saucy, and the batter remains crunchy until the last bite is consumed. It defies physics.

Coco Deep Fried Chicken on Urbanspoon


A convoluted drive to the city's deep south reveals Wing Chicx. Intentionally misspelled name notwithstanding, the Chicx' chicken plays a strong hand. Their version is saucier than that of Coco's, underscoring the gratis wetnaps provided by the management. The crust is thinner and softer, but the sauce nicely balances sweet with heat, and has a pleasant vinegar follow-through.

Sample size, obviously, would not stand up to statistical rigour, but both have initiated renewed faith in the practice of deep-frying chicken. If only one could could combine Coco's crunchiness with Wing Chicx's awesome sauce.

Wing Chicx on Urbanspoon

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