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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.


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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.


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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.

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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

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