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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 Bourbon 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

Friday, 19 December 2014

A Day in the Sun at Passion de France

Long-maligned Alberta Avenue will be the next 124 Street. The next Whyte Ave. The next "it" street. For if every street has its day, then 118th Avenue's is poignantly overdue. Arguments in its favour could fill a small volume: an abundance of owner-operated businesses, an eclectic assortment of buildings (both new and old vintage), a bonus of wide-crowned elm trees, architectural diversity among the branching side streets, and an unabashedly authentic cross-section of humanity all striving for the same thing: a sense of home. Now, 118th has another reason to be cool or - better yet - sought after: a patisserie.

Passion De France opened quietly in early December. One isn't likely to drive by it, for this tiny house of baked goods is set back from the main avenue by at least half a block, and separated from the street from a patio's worth of space. Though the front walk is buttressed by heaving snowdrifts now, one can imagine a smart set of patio furniture and umbrellas nodding like heavy-headed sunflowers in the breeze once the northern hemisphere turns back towards the light.  Inside, a tidy and efficient space, dressed in cool mint green and white, breathes the beguiling scent of fresh baking, resplendent in rich butter and sighing with dark chocolate and spices.
The display cooler is not yet full, though the menu promises a smattering of sandwiches, quiche and soup. Make no mistake, though; I've come for the baking. Specifically - croissants and macarons. Though I must confess to have never been in Paris (neither the French nor Ontarian locals, though I suspect the latter holds to a different standard of baked goods), a journeyman baker once explained to me that a real croissant - a real one and not the questionable supermarket variety - ought to make a mess when eaten. For all those glorious strata of butter, so lovingly layered throughout the dough, transform via some sort of culinary alchemy into a shattering mess. Yes, one bite ought to send croissant shards everywhere. Anything less, and you are looking at an ersatz roll of edible oil products. The croissant at Passion de France more than delivers. It delivers a sinfully rich croissant that makes a mess absolutely everywhere, just as it should.

Nine flavours of macarons beckon: at this point, they include chocolate, orange, Earl Grey, raspberry, lemon, passion fruit, vanilla, coffee, and salted caramel. It is difficult to pick a favourite flavour, for how could one go to the Louvre and pick a favourite painting? These impish, colourful buttons are yielding yet firm - sweet but not cloying. Little exquisite paradoxes, just their Alberta Avenue home, which will soon find its day in the sun.

Oh, and they pull a mean espresso macchiato.

Passion de France on Urbanspoon

Monday, 8 December 2014

Winds of Change at Enzo's on 76

The joyous discovery of Enzo's on 76 restored faith that the neighbourhood eatery was alive and well, feet firmly planted, head helt high, with strong arms stirring a cauldron of bubbling marinara. Enzo's had no need for a trendy street to call home, and that was part of its appeal; good food requires no fixed address. The restaurant's namesake rotated constantly from kitchen to front of house. Enzo and his warmly-lit space were meant for each other. Change blew through the doors - in my eyes - inexplicably. Word on the street is that Enzo is focusing on his take-out place in Sherwood Park. Front of house and kitchen staff are all different now, and though this unto and of itself is not bad or wrong, memories tied to this specific location still search for each other like a favourite hat waiting to be hung on a well-crafted coat hook.

Little has changed in the restaurant, esthetically speaking. Photographs of food have been replaced with vaguely Van Gogh-ish oil paintings, and a top-forty soundtrack in the background neither offends nor pleases. A plate of freshly sliced bread arrives with a small bowl of rosemary-infused olive oil. Not the garlic-infused oil and balsamic that Enzo used to serve, but it is headily fragrant and undeniably delicious.

Two mains - one the evening's special and the other a la carte - are a study in contrasts. Lobster Mac and Cheese (left) proffers ample lobster in a deceptively deep bowl of rigatoni. Promises of truffle oil don't quite shine through the rich cheese sauce, but the summation is still one of decadence and comfort. Pan-seared Arctic Char (right) is a treat and begs the question of why overexposed salmon gets more air time. Crunchy, sesam seed-encrusted skin protects moist myomeres that, in turn, shelter a vibrant and grassy green pea puree. Agreeable mixed vegetables are along for the ride, but this dish belongs unequivocally to the char.

Dessert, as the evening winds to a close, includes a Cappuccino Semifreddo (left) and Flourless Chocolate Cake (right). Each is decked out with miniature gingerbread men for the holidays, and the semifreddo is gifted a crunchy gingerbread tree. The semifreddo is nutty, chilly, and creamy without being too rich, but the chocolate cake is a contradiction of very heavy cake paired with vexingly sticky caramel popcorn, without much (apart from a valiant scoop of gelato) to marry the two.

The winds of change have indeed blown through Enzo's doors, and it is difficult to think of the restaurants in terms other than "before" and "after." Even though the food remains delicious, I cannot help but wonder the whereabouts of the eatery's eponymous, original chef, and hope that his spark, zest, and ability to restore faith in the very existence of neighbourhood restaurants is well-received in Sherwood Park.

Enzo's on 76 on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Breaking the Jinx at Central Social Hall

There are so many jinxed locations in Edmonton. One can think of a certain spot on Whyte Ave's western frontier that chewed through a high-end eatery, a coffee shop and a sushi joint in a matter of months. Or spaces on Jasper Avenue that suffer the same, perpetual, interminable fate. A certain corner of Jasper Avenue was a Japanese joint with dubious "naked sushi" a few years ago. Then, it morphed into "The Ruby Dragon," proffering purportedly good Chinese food that still failed to hang onto this coveted piece of real estate. Finally, in 2012, Central Social Hall cut the ribbon and threw open its doors. Passing motorists - myself included - caught glimpses of boisterous, crowded tables, and blinking flat-screens.

Still, I did not visit, unconvinced by my unsubstantiated assumptions of predictable hamburgers and sodden fries. A recent invitation to Central Social's new menu tasting event provided good reason to visit, and ultimately to shatter preconceived notions of pub-grub proficiency.
A detailed menu flaunts a daunting nine item roster for the evening, one that is nudged into sparkling motion by a glimmering flute of Glera Sparkling that tickles and whispers like the snowflakes outside. The flipside of the menu reads, "share and be social," and this phrase is as prophetic as it is accurate. A large platter of Kettle Chips (upper left) delivers satisfying crunch, though the accompanying caramelized onion dip falls a little short in the onion department. Bacon-Deviled Eggs (lower left) are ghostly white boats toting a rich payload of smoke and sweet. Ball Park Pretzels (lower right) are show-stealers. Warm, salty and beguiling, these knotty treasures find happy companions in fiery mustard and rich cheddar sauces. Better yet - both sauces in the same bite, much like a British mustard-and-cheese sandwich. Albacore Tuna Tataki (upper right) furthers the evening's trend with a strong hand of crisp wonton, supple tuna, and a savoury-tangy dollop of wasabi mayo on top.
 A Crispy Prawn Thai Noodle Salad (upper left), aside from that extremely memorable pretzel, is the evening's winner. Cool, citrusy, and summery, this melange of cabbage, cilantro, cuke, carrot and cucumber, finds sunshine with sweet mint, tart pickled onions, and earthy peanuts. A crispy fried shrimp is the proverbial cherry on top. A Spicy Chicken Taco (right) is the evening's misstep; chicken is shredded so finely as to be undetectable, while valentina hot sauce is inconsistently applied. Texturally, the sum of the parts is not the whole. Redemption arrives in the earthly form of Seafood Linguini (lower left). Here is a creamy, tomato-y treat that would just as home on a red checkered candlelit table cloth as it is under the uber-modern light fixtures of Central Social.
All good things must end, and if all good things ended with Apple-Cranberry Crumble, the world would be a far better, far happier, place.  Here, a rustic jam jar proudly cradles ruby-red apples, cranberries and rhubarb that relaxes and reclines under a crumbly blanket of pecan struesel. One could eat a bowl of struesel alone, as it's rather addicting. A tiny scoop - how I wish there was just a bit more - of vanilla gelato melts gratefully onto the surrounding crumbles while the omnipresent flat-screens blink hypnotically, like the headlights of passing vehicles outside.

Thank you, Central Social Hall, for your generous invitation, and for proving yourselves to be a strong contender in Edmonton's burgeoning gastropub scene. If anyone deserves to dispel that location's jinx, it's you.

For another take on the evening, read about Marlow Moo's experience.
Central Social Hall on Urbanspoon

Friday, 28 November 2014

The Gods of Cake at Duchess Bake Shop

Somewhere, wrapped deep within one's obligatory adult layers of pleasantries, manners and social mores, is a five year-old with an insatiable appetite for cake.

Hyperbole and a Half's Allie Brosh explains this phenomenon best.

Though there were social mores a-plenty at Duchess Bake Shop's recent cookbook launch (a fine volume that is well worth a purchase), I suspected that, lurking just barely below the surface of smart dresses and neatly pressed pants, was an entire army of five years olds at the ready, just waiting for their cue to strip the universe of sweetness.
Towering, many-hued macaron edifices, a multiverse of tarts, and sparkling petals of madeleines waited - no, veritably tempted and practically taunted. A silent, siren song of sweets. Kitchen tours set to the gentle strains of cellos and other string instruments produced little tidbits, like how Duchess's key lime pie sprung fully formed from the brow of a happy accident, namely, an unexpected shipment of limes. Or that French bakers always open a shop in Tokyo, because the Japanese public has a relentless desire for French baked goods. Or that no one - absolutely no one - order Paris Brest when Duchess first opened shop, and co-owner Giselle dutifully ate countless Parisian dainties for breakfast when the public spurned these international goodies in favour of more recognizable fare.
And so it goes. No more do baked goods wait in vain, yearning for a lover of pastries who will never arrive. No; Duchess outgrew its original space and expanded next door, opening "Provisions" in its natal digs and conjuring up a Parisian-Victorian room of jeweled chandeliers, backlit shelves (on of which proudly sports a tiny, gilded ornamental reindeer head), and counter upon on counter of baked goods. Fodder for the wildest childhood fantasies of everyone's inner five year-old.

Duchess Bake Shop on Urbanspoon


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