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Sunday, 25 December 2011

Merry Christmas 2011

Gratitude. To feel gratitude is to be fulfilled and satiated, but also to sit back and marvel at the circumstances that precipitated that feeling. I've never been one to send Christmas letters (or write Christmas blog posts...though I must profess that this is Dine & Write's first Christmas, since I commenced writing this blog in March), but so much has happened during the last year that I was compelled to regale my tale.

I've made such singularly wonderful friends through the world of food. Any oversights herein are unintentional, but special shout-outs to Marlow Moo, The Infinite Yums, Blue Butterfly, Weird, Wild and Wonderful, Food Karma, Baconhound, A Canadian Foodie, and Food, Football and a Baby. Your culinary prowess, turns of phrase and companionship have greatly enriched my existence and enlivened my dining adventures across the city.

Why on earth am I posing with the heating cabinet? A scene from the Calzone Co.'s first anniversary party in November.

Writing for Vue Weekly led me Battista's Calzone Company. Long story short: interviewed Battista for Vue, became a regular customer, baked biscotti for Taste 118, and became half-owner. Since then (and "then" being early June 2011), we've expanded the menu, added interior and exterior artwork, hosted private functions, a first anniversary party, a Christmas party, and purchased a food truck (calzones to the people!). We're aiming to have the Calzonemobile on the road in May 2012.

The beginnings of our word cloud...nothing like standing on a rickety ladder and drawing on a wall!

I return to gratitude, since Christmas is a season of reflection for me. I am grateful for the people I've met. I can hardly wait for 2012.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Cibo - A World Apart

Cibo, quite simply, means "food" in Italian. It's also the name of a relative newcomer to Edmonton's culinary landscape. Cibo, which is the creation of friends Rosario Caputo, Mike Giampa and Matt Helstein, sits comfortably in Tesoro's former Oliver Square digs.  It's inevitable that comparisons will be drawn between Cibo and Tesoro, but similarities are restricted to physical location. The menu and ambiance are worlds apart.

Cibo's astute and concise menu contains a smattering of appetizers, entrees and desserts. All recapitulate Italian recipes with liberal use of local ingredients. We begin with pan-fried ricotta cakes; here, a sextet of creamy ricotta pillows are topped by tangy tomato jam and shreds of fragrant chicken. Nicely played, Cibo.

Mike brings us a savoury surprise: polenta fritta. Its name indicates polenta, which I envisioned as a large crispy wedge. To my most pleasant surprise, the polenta is presented as long "fries" with shavings of piquant Calabrese salami. Each fry may be enrobed by salami and dipped in spicy mayo as a zesty precursor to subsequent indulgences.

We progress to guance di manzo. This plate presents a hearty helping of beef cheeks accompanied by a rotund arancino and braised rapini. The crisp arancino (the singular of arancini, if you're wondering) sings of caciocavallo cheese and golden chanterelle mushrooms, while the rapini adds an enticing, vaguely bitter undertone that exemplifies the beef's natural sweetness.

Our second entree, gnocchi, is caressed by creamy gorgonzola, shallots, and earthy mushrooms. True that the dish is a bit monochromatic but one tender bite chases away any nit-picking considerations of colour.

Dessert is a tough call, but we select goat milk panna cotta with blueberry sauce. The panna cotta is infused with basil. Both goat milk and basil are assertive flavours but coexist quite agreeably in this dessert. A snowy sprinkle of piave vecchio cheese adds a demurely savoury surprise and the chubby blueberries burst with violet sweetness.

Evidently (and much to the amusement of Mike, Rosi and Matt) customers still blaze through Cibo's doors, fail to notice the substantial changes in decor, and order items that do not exist on Cibo's menu. It's tough when a favourite eatery moves on, but Cibo's menu makes it easy to find new favourites.

Cibo Bistro on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Cafe Coral de Cuba - Viva La Libertad!

I sampled Cuban food once in Fort Lauderdale years ago; up until several weeks ago, Cuban food was but a sweet and savoury memory that occasionally wandered through my subconscious. I practically did a double-take when I noticed a Cuban flag hanging in the window of Cafe Dabar's former digs. Cuban food is ridiculously difficult to find in most Canadian cities. If Cafe Coral's offerings were as good as what I remembered from Florida, I was in for a treat.

Cafe con Leche replete with tendrils of steam

I planned a trip with my steadfast bovine companion, Marlow Moo, and my Cuban friend Gabby. We ordered, upon Gabby's recommendation, Cafe con Leche. It isn't on the menu, but owners Nestora and Lidice will make one for you if you ask. It's similar to a latte, except it is made with Cuban espresso, which is sharper and more bitter than Italian espresso.

Pork and ham come from the same magical, mystical animal

We dive into a Cubano, Ropa Vieja, and Pollo Asado. A Cubano is a sandwich that is generously layered with ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, yellow mustard and dill pickles. It is a hearty meal unto itself and sings with juicy, savoury meat, saline pickles and mellow cheese. The sandwich I had in Florida pales in comparison to Cafe Coral's version.

Are you going to finish all that, Marlow?

Ropa Vieja literally translates as "old clothes." It is one of Cuba's national dishes and contains finely shredded flank steak dressed in a spicy tomato-based sauce. It is served with rice and beans; the summation of these ingredients is amenable to both tropical climes and as an antidote to bitter Canadian winters. We nibble on a side of piquant plantain chips. They are devilishly addictive.

Which came first, the pollo or the asado?

Pollo Asado is, essentially, chicken roasted in citrus juices and spices, namely, cumin and oregano. Here, an entire leg and thigh are drenched in juicy marinade. Rice and beans are the go-to side.

Say cheese...and guava...

We finish with guava jam and cheese. The jam is so thick and sticky that it is cut into slices and topped with mild, white cheese. Gabby remembers enjoying this snack on crackers. I concur that crackers would make this dish easier to eat. Nonetheless, the guava is demure and exotic and is a welcome change from more accessible fruits like strawberries and raspberries. Nothing against those ones, though...

What a treat to rediscover Cuban food in the frozen north. It is especially a treat that this food exceeds what I remember from Florida. Cafe Coral de Cuba just opened up - I hope the city welcomes them with open arms.

Cafe Coral de Cuba on Urbanspoon

Monday, 28 November 2011

4th and Vine - Red Red Wine

My sometimes covert, sometimes overt love affair with wine bars recently expanded to include 4th and Vine after I ran into (not literally) owner Duncan a few weeks prior. This narrow room is dressed in dark colours and occupies a prominent corner lot in Oliver Square.

A multitude of bottles adorn every shelf and alcove in 4th and Vine. Chalkboard menus - an entity whose popularity is on the upswing in town - proclaim the day's specials. Artwork is used sparingly around the room and an open kitchen gives diners a glimpse into the magical realm of culinary prestidigitation.

Supper commences with a malbec trio. This trifecta of tannins features vintages from Argentina, France and Australia. Argentina is the far and away favourite and sings with clear notes of plum and anise. The French variety lags behind its Argentinian and Australian counterparts and feels slightly immature and acidic.

We dine on a charcuterie plate that includes a row of decently crusty baguette, small rosettes of cold-smoked salmon (I hope it's Sgambaros certainly tastes like it), olives, venison chorizo, soppresata, smoked gouda, and two other types of cheese (whose names escape me). A bite of chorizo chased by a nip of smoked gouda handily combines the divine indulgences of fat and smoke. The buttery salmon goes down nicely on a slice of bread.

Dessert presents a martini glass (so 90s but don't worry, it's cool) of chocolate mousse and a judicious slice of cappuccino cheesecake. The mousse is velvet-smooth and irrepressibly rich. I'm forced to surrender after but a few spoonfuls. The cheesecake meets a similar fate - too rich to die and so it will live another day in the refrigerator until my furtive midnight munchies strike once more. I've checked another Edmonton wine bar off my bucket list. Of course, a repeat visit is in order to reaffirm my love of malbec and charcuterie.

4th & Vine on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Mirabelle Macarons - Sweet things in small packages

I forgot to bring a notepad with me when fellow cyberfoodies Marlow Moo, Beyond Umami, The Infinite Yums, and Food, Foodball & A Baby and I converged upon a south side coffee shop to meet Connie, the brains and brawn behind Mirabelle Macarons. I forgot my notepad and attempted to jot down the names of each macaron on the back of a crumpled receipt that was stuck in my jacket pocket. Nice.

A carrot cake pop...good for the eyesight as well as for the psyche.

Before I delve into the universe of small, colourful cookies, I will touch upon the subject of cake pops. Please refer to a recent blog post by The Infinite Yums about said pops; I propose that lollypops, popsicles, or any other stick-based sweet will never compare to these treats that please in both the aesthetic and gustatory sense.

A treasure chest of macarons

So what on earth is a macaron? It isn't anything like the coconut macaroons with which most are familiar. To quote Connie, it is an "almond cookie characterized by smooth shells with ruffled 'feet,' and a flavoured filling in urge to eat another one will likely follow." I concur.

A salted caramel macaron. Never before have salt and sugar so happily coexisted.

I'm trying to read my chicken scratch handwriting on the back of the rumpled receipt that, after somehow making it home, went missing in my office for several weeks. My magical mystery tour of macarons ranged from the subtle, like green tea and rose, to the assertive, like salted caramel and hazelnut chocolate, to the exotic and enigmatic, like chai and black currant. Each easily balanced a divinely crisp interior with a chewy interior that cradled gorgeous and not at all phony flavours. I'm struggling to pick a favourite - a testament to Connie's mastery of the art of macarons.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Bistro Praha - Kickin' It Old World

I clearly remember Bistro Praha's previous location, which was the ground floor of a spectacular brick heritage building, the Ramsey Block. I dined in their stately dining room, noshed on solid Mitteleuropa, and enjoyed the complete paucity of vehicular traffic outside. Sadly, arson destroyed this gorgeous spot and sent Bistro Praha (plus its neighbour, Co Co Di) packing. Bistro Praha eventually reopened in the former digs of Moon Garden, just a few steps north of Jasper.

 Bistro Praha's new digs are decidedly Old World, replete with large oil paintings and no-fuss, heavy wooden tables. The meat-driven menu presents multiple versions of schnitzels, a smattering of pastas, and a concise selection of cured and roasted meats.

Dining commences with a tomato and onion salad. I appreciate the tart and acidic presence of vinegar, but the tomatoes are woefully underripe and contribute little of the sunny juiciness these crimson treasures should possess.

Roast goose is next up. It is served with fluffy bread dumplings that act as edible sponges for rich meat drippings. A juicy tangle of bacon-studded sauerkraut rides shotgun; its fermented essence nicely offsets the delightfully fatty goose. The goose is sizable (and I ordered the half portion - be forewarned that portion sizes are substantial) and thoroughly satiates.

Smoked pork hocks come with sauerkraut and bread dumplings and features several rosy portions of smoky Schweinefleisch. Think ham raised to the power of ten and you approach the cured and smoked personality of this dish. Yellow mustard is a decent, if not overly imaginative, condiment.

Weinerschnitzel is one of Bistro Praha's claims to enduring, city-wide fame. A squeeze of lemon adds a leap of citrus to golden, buttery bread crumbs and tender veal. A small scoop of creamy potato salad and a curl of cucumber add swatches of white and green.

The summation of a meal at Bistro Praha is an old school, Old World feed of meat and starch. Don't expect anything fussy - thank goodness. I do miss their original location, though. Their new spot has dreadful acoustics and the room is so narrow that serves must weave among the chairs on tiptoe. Never mind; Bistro Praha still kicks it Old World.

Bistro Praha on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Big City Sandwich - Pop Goes the World

Pop-up kitchens, wherein an outside chef assumes the reins in a restaurant for a brief period of time, are just beginning to - forgive the painful turn of phrase - pop up in Edmonton. Big City Sandwich is, to my knowledge, the first to do so. Big City Sandwich will join the ranks of the Capital Region's food trucks next summer and, until then, will preview its sandwiches monthly. October's pop-up witnessed a hub of activity at Packrat Louie. Big City Sandwich is actively searching for their next pop-up location.

I missed their September debut, but eagerly tucked into a smoked beef brisket sandwich with bacon jam on October 23rd. Here, tender shreds of sultry, smoky beef lounged with tangy bacon jam that whispered of maple and onions. The bun itself needs a bit of work - perhaps something a bit crustier? A cheese-stuffed jalapeno pepper added a flash of heat. Sides, which included fries and baked beans, were perfect partners. I'm not even a fan of baked beans, but these were toothsome and spicy. I thought I was full and intended to save the fries for later. I must confess that they did not survive the drive home. They were well-textured and delicious, even ice cold.

Dessert presented a pumpkin ginger whoopie pie from the well-crafted kitchen of Bluebird Cakes. Whoopie pies superficially resemble oversized oreo cookies, but the similarities end there. There is simply no comparison between a homemade, lofty, creamy creation and a rock-hard, preservative-laden store-bought slab of flour and shortening. This whoopie pie handily captured the autumnal flavours of pumpkin and warm spices, and carried a smooth but not overly rich cream cheese filling. I would get out of bed at 3 a.m. for those things. I eagerly await the next pop-up kitchen. Dare I say that I shall pop in?

Sunday, 23 October 2011

The Marc - Baby, One More Time

What is it about the road to hell being paved with good intentions? I intend to revisit so many places, but finding time has become like trying to rescue a strip of bacon from a pack of hungry coyotes. I've intended to visit The Marc for months. My initial visit was in April and, following that, I intended to spend time on their patio. Summer flashed past and replaced patio weather with scarves and fallen leaves.

I finally, finally, returned to discover a new menu that retained some treats (helloooo beignets) from my initial visit. I dive into a Basque seafood stew that arrives cozily contained in its own miniature pot. The delicate, transparent broth boasts mussels, prawns, fish and a few veggies. It is uncomplicated and genuinely showcases the clean flavours of the sea. A glass of pinot grigio is an obvious partner.

Steak frites caresses a succulent slice of medium-rare beef with devilishly rich foie gras butter. Salty, crispy and addictive fries are amenable to a delicate smear of aioli. A butter knife lazily slides through the meat's grain - a spork would suffice for meat this tender. The frites, though we cannot finish them all, are morsels of deep-fried happiness.

I alluded to beignets earlier. I wanted to - and would have - returned for these fluffy indulgences alone. Beignets are small, doughnut-like fritters that originated in France but enjoy substantial popularity in New Orleans. The Marc, keeping with Gallic and Cajun tradition, sprinkles these delightfully asymmetrical spheres with icing sugar and serves them hot from the fryer with tiny dishes of salted caramel and creme fraiche for dipping. C'est bon. C'est tres, tres bon.

I lament my apparent inability to conduct follow-up visits in a timely fashion but, in the interest of keeping this post concise and keeping up my propensity to casually toss in cliches when necessary, better late than never.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Cafe Amore Bistro - All in the Famiglia

Imagine a small bistro owned and staffed by multiple generations of the same family. It's late at night, well after the traditional dining hour. The place is packed and multiple layers of conversation are mixed with lively music. Close your eyes and you might imagine sitting in an Italian osteria. Open them and realize you are nowhere more (or less) exotic than the mature neighbourhood of Delton.

This is Cafe Amore Bistro. One moves through an unassuming doorway into an electric plane of energy underscored by solid Italian fare. The concept is simple: one of the owners greets you, you peruse the menus (which hang on the wall in a most cavalier fashion), order, observe your surroundings and eat.

Penne. Sausage. Tomato sauce. Need I say more?

Pasta specials change daily; today, a Calabrese interpretation graces my plate. Properly al dente penne loll with slices of spicy sausage and vibrant tomato sauce. A small shaker of red chilies is available for those with a need to spice things up, but I am content to consume this bounty unadulterated.

A happy sandwich indeed.

A chicken pizzaiola panino (Remember: panini is plural and panino is singular...had to sneak that in there for it's one of my pet peeves) arrives next. A crusty bun cradles an entire chicken breast caressed by herbs and melted cheese. I cannot help but recall that a certain sandwich franchise proffered chicken pizzaiola subs several years ago. Purge those from your mind, for they are not a valid comparison. Cafe Amore's panini are fresh and sing with well-chosen flavours.

The house red, a Montepulciano, is ruby red, bold and luscious. Two dishes of sorbetto - orange and strawberry - conclude our meal. I am loathe to leave this distinctly international hub and return to the starkly residential scene outside. It doesn't, in my estimation, get any more authentic than this.

Cafe Amore Bistro on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Ragazzi Bistro - The Boys Are Back In Town

Not that long ago, in a neighbourhood not so far away, thrived a small pizzeria called Pizza Boys. Renowned for hand-tossed crusts, this family-run operation eventually changed its name to the more upscale moniker, Ragazzi Bistro. "Ragazzi," literally translated, means "boys" but part of me misses their cavalier birth name. I suppose it's my predilection for the classic and retro, as opposed to the modern (and hence my predisposition to listen to hair metal...but I'll save that one for another day).

A pizza, by any other name, tastes as sweet when it comes from the kitchen of Ragazzi. Stricken by a crippling combination of fatigue and laziness, I ordered a New York Spice pizza and (to my dismay) discovered that they no longer deliver. I muddled my way through traffic, driven (no pun intended) by the promise of melted cheese and tender crust. I traipsed like a half-starved zombie into Ragazzi's recently-renovated dining room.

A mere cardboard take-out box could not contain the beguiling aroma of New York Spice. I raced to the vehicle, locked the doors and wolfed down a slice. Heaven. Perhaps it was the self-contained atmosphere of my hermetically sealed vehicle. Perhaps it was my ravenous hunger. These are indubitably contributing factors, but I attribute my immense enjoyment of said pizza to the high level of skill present in Ragazzi's kitchen. Crispy-tender crust, zesty tomato sauce, bracing spices and an abundant blanket of stretch cheese. This Bonnie Doon spot, name change nonewithstanding, satiates and impresses. The boys are back in town. And they never left in the first place.

Ragazzi Bistro Italiano‎ on Urbanspoon

Monday, 26 September 2011

Engrained - Cutting Across the Grain

I cannot overemphasize the importance of consuming local food. The reasons span the noble (e.g., supporting local farmers) to the slightly selfish (e.g., locally grown food usually tastes better than something that has traveled thousands of kilometers to grace your place). Local food is how we used to do things and, despite society's recent and prolonged departure from this way of being, a return to such a mindset is gaining momentum.

"University campuses" and "local food" are phrases rarely found in the same sentence, let alone the same tangible location, but Engrained is the first (of many, hopefully) of local food's migration into college life. Indeed, Engrained makes a significant effort to use local and sustainably produced meats and produce.

The menu features stir-frys, sandwiches of various varieties, steak, salad and pizza. The cafeteria-style system means that one approaches a "station" - steak, pizza or otherwise - to order and await the desired meal.

I'm having lunch with Marlow Moo; he orders striploin steak with smashed potatoes (but there was no cannibalism!) and I select a calzone (for reasons that will remain intentionally nebulous...though I did honestly want to see the flaming pizza oven in action). The steak is juicy, tender and cooked to order, though heavy-handed salt application obscures the meat's natural sweetness. The smashed spuds, while buttery, are liberally sprinkled with what initially appears to be paprika. A small forkful reveals otherwise. Lamentably, the bright orange powder is seasoning salt. Seasoning salt has its place - don't get me wrong - but locally grown potatoes deserve far better. Dill, perhaps?

My calzone is larger than expected and looks like it could feed a family of four. The dough tends to the heavy end of the spectrum and, while it is stuffed with pepperoni, green peppers, onions, mushrooms and cheese, it manages to taste...well...bland. All of these ingredients should, by all reasonable logic, translate to a zesty meal and yet I a reminded of a pizza pop.

I love Engrained's philosophy and will always support and enjoy local food. That being said, the execution of the dishes we sampled left us wondering why the execution did not match the quality of the ingredients. I want to love the food as much as I love the idea behind it; perhaps Engrained is still growing into the rather large shoes it is trying to fill.

Engrained (University of Alberta Campus) on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Tzin Wine Bar - Tzins of the Flesh

Words can scarcely express my gratitude for wine bars. I was the sort of person (wait, why is that in the past tense? I still am...) who goes to pubs and bars begrudgingly, plots my escape, and slips away when no one appears to be watching. Wine bars are another barrel of libations entirely. They are intriguing, classy and enigmatic, and I wish to escape into - rather than away from - these establishments. I finally visited Tzin, a well-established downtown wine bar that has hovered at the top of my to-do list for far too long, and discovered (among other things) that there exists a vintage named after my third favourite dessert and fifth favourite action movie: Layer Cake.

Layer Cake is a full-bodied zinfandel that hails from Puglia, the heel of Italy's boot. It is, as its name so richly suggests, layered and complex. It is a sunny, giddy rush of crisp evenings and heady Mediterranean nights. And, for God's sake, it has a drawing of a layer cake on the label. I think I'm in oenophile heaven.

Tzin's menu is succinct and we nibble on baked brie with red wine reduction, cherry and pear compote, and small slices of bread. The tiny rounds of marbled rye are quite a treat and smartly support their weighty crown of melty, gooey brie and sweet fruit.

We progress to crab-stuffed prawns which, for a moment (and I apologize in advance, for old nerdy habits die hard) reminds me of a line from The Simpsons.

Moe Szyslak (the bartender): Bring me your finest food stuffed with your second finest!
Waiter: That would be lobster...stuffed with tacos.

No such stuffing here, mercifully. Instead, we nosh on plump prawns that just barely contain their crabby stuffing. It is a buttery bite of oceanic bounty.

Dessert features flourless chocolate cake. It is lustrous, seductive and is slowly devoured in infinitesimally small slices. I prolong the cake for as long as is reasonably possible, such that I may relish my surroundings. Tzin is like a hidden annex of rich tapestries, tall, multi-paned windows and flashes of light that burst from a small, open kitchen. I cannot resist a bad pun: it was Tzinfully good.

Tzin Wine & Tapas on Urbanspoon

Monday, 12 September 2011

Mikado - Roll Call of Awesome

How I've bemoaned the relative absence of top-tier sushi in this city. I don't mean to over-generalize, since Sabu and Kyoto are distinct exceptions to this broad-stroke statement, but I've had some pretty disappointing experiences. The worst, in a nutshell, involved the waitress losing our order several times and bringing us fish that (a) was not especially fresh and (b) looked like it was sliced by knife-wielding baboon with anger issues. The deep-fried rolls were a hefty rub of salt in the ol' wounds. They were so excessively doused in mayo that no other flavour was apparent. Three strikes and you're out.

I'd yet to visit Mikado until an invitation from baconophile ZoomJer drew me downtown. The rumour mill suggested the existence of a mysterious (and delicious) Jerry Roll and showcased bacon (as if there were ever any doubt).

Bacon, kiwi, mango, avocado, crab, cuke and fish roe? How could I go wrong? I waited in mild agony as platter after platter emerged from the lively kitchen and traveled to private booths where no shoes are permitted.

The Jerry Roll emerged on a sleek white platter like a boatload of Carmen Miranda-esque celebrities wearing fruity headgear. Though a bit unwieldy to manage with slender chopsticks, each slice was a rave party of decidedly smoky bacon and sunny tropical fruits. The fish roe popped with piscine salinity. The crab and rice deferred attention to the aforementioned ingredients, like backup dancers are content to pop and lock while the main act hams it up for the spotlight.

I must profess that I'm basing my opinion of Mikado on one roll. But what a roll. Roll call of awesome.

Mikado (Downtown) on Urbanspoon


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