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Tuesday, 31 May 2011

CHG Top Chef - Final Showdown

Sixteen contestants purveyed a parade of scallops in early May, each hoping to become CHG's Top Chef. The following Saturday, eight produced plates of pork tenderloin - hog heaven for the judges and semi-professional moocher who shall remain nameless. Ok, it's me. The Saturday after that, our cries of "where's the beef" were answered with flavourful bison and chased with chocolate and rhubarb desserts.

Full photo album may be viewed here...

And then there were two. Ben Weir and Shirley Fortez. The finale features supper for a full house at Lux; consequently, each finalist selected a team consisting of a former competitor and a celebrity judge-cum-chef.  Ben selects John Dykeman and Valerie Lugonja while Shirley chooses Cedric Boeglin and Che Bechard. The dueling duo will create appetizers, entrees and dessert featuring, respectively, steelhead salmon, beef shortrib and spot prawns, and eggs.  In addition, they will shop in the farmers' market for local ingredients to accentuate their culinary creations.

Showdown night buzzes with excitement. Ben's salmon tartare appears first, and showcases simple salmon flavour paired with vivid asparagus-tarragon mash. Shirley's cured salmon with daikon-carrot slaw is next. It is anybody's game.

Ben crusts his shortrib with coffee and serves it with a giant spot prawn tortellini atop a green puddle of arugula pesto. It is tender, the coffee flavour is utterly demure, and the bright chartreuse pesto belies a strong peanut flavour. Shirley places a whole spot prawn (striking but potentially dangerous to the eyes) atop a rectangle of shortrib resting on rice with red curry-coconut-shrimp sauce. Here we have two very different entrees, each with their own roster of strengths and weaknesses.

Dessert presents sabayon and carrot cake. Ben's boozy, airy sabayon crowns a mouthful of winter berries and shares quarters with a vibrant scoop of raspberry cream. Shirley's carrot cake is dense, moist and buttressed by apple-pineapple compote and a scatter of almonds.

The moment of truth. Judges Paul Shufelt, Liane Faulder, Kari Skelton and Blair Lebsack deliberate while guests cast their ballot. The race is unbelievably close but, ultimately, Ben seizes victory. The CHG Top Chef journey has been wild and delicious and, like any good competition, features impossible twists, turns and a heady cocktail of flavourful surprises.  Kudos to all the judges and CHG for a fantastically entertaining month. I eagerly await the 2012 season.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

D'Amores Deli - The Italian Job

An ode to the humble sandwich: lunch box staple and hand-held sustenance that is the subject of endless permutations and incarnations.  A sandwich is, perhaps, the ultimate in custom cuisine.  Every component, from bread and veg to meat and cheese, may be swapped or omitted on a whim.  I profess that some of the best sandwiches in Edmonton are purveyed by D'Amores Deli.

D'Amores Deli occupies a generous corner lot on the north side.  The yard boasts a small patio with chairs when the weather is fleetingly pleasant.  The interior harkens to the long-gone era of corner stores, when small, family-run affairs filled the niche now occupied by warehouse-sized supermarkets.  One may peruse an admirable selection of canned tomatoes, dry pasta, olives, oils, coffee and frozen entrees created from family recipes.  The deli counter is a focal point and features a sweeping selection of quintessential Italian cold cuts and cheeses: piave vecchio, parmigiano-reggiano, soppressata etc.

Italian-style sandwiches are crafted from fresh, crusty buns and are stuffed with capocollo, mortadella, Genoa salami, provolone, and zesty vegetable spread.  A quick visit to the sandwich press transforms the cheese into a melty vehicle of ingredient unification and coaxes forth the cured meats' rich seasoning. Each bite commences with the yielding crunch of toasted bread, progresses through tender layers of cheese and meat, and ends as it began. The sandwiches alone are incentive enough for a trip to the north side of the Yellowhead, and the groceries/deli counter are a bonus.

A magical mystery tour of bread, melted cheese and cured meats awaits
A multitude of hand-held meals are featured
Old-school deli counter and grocery selection

D'Amore Deli on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 26 May 2011

CHG Top Chef Round 3 - The Fab Four

Who will be eliminated tonight?

I suppose I am milking my Tyra Banks impression for all it is worth...but I digress.  This previous Saturday witnessed the remaining CHG Top Chef contestants whittled from four down to two. The competition is fierce. The stakes are high. The task at hand is, by no stretch, an easy one. Today, the quartet of competitors must create a main course featuring bison, rhubarb and Bernard Callebaut chocolate. The panel of judges, including Chef Paul Shufelt, Che Bechard of Baseline Wines, 2010 Gold Medal Plates winner chef Andrew Fung, Mack Male and Sharon Yeo of Only Here for the Food, will not be lenient. Indeed, the competitors must select a wine to complement their entree.


 (The photo album may be viewed here in its entirety)

First up: Shirley Fortez vs. Cedric Boeglin. 

Shirley presents baseball-cut bison striploin with aigre-douce sauce, smashed spuds with garlic, and roasted tomatoes with truffle oil.  The meat is rich, sweet and perfectly cooked and, while the potatoes err on the "rustic" end of the spud spectrum, their garlicky warmth begs for another bite and then another. The truffle oil is a bit misplaced and is lost among the assertive flavours present in the dish. Shirley's wine, a Castle Rock Petit Syrah, doesn't quite work with the sauce, since the sweet-sour dichotomy is among the most difficult to match with wine. Her dessert, lemon flan with rhubarb and chocolate sauce, is delicate and airy but the rhubarb flavour is elusive.

Cedric reveals a mini bison striploin with syrah beurre blanc, rhubarb sauce, all resting on oven-roasted potatoes and asparagus. The rhubarb sauce adds a welcome note of tang, though the meat is just a wee bit overdone. The visual appeal of the potatoes would improve had they been left whole and not hidden under the meat. Cedric selects J Lohr Syrah, though a syrah may be too gentle for a gamy meat like bison. Dessert features chocolate crepe Suzette. It's a hit of citrus and chocolate that works beautifully.

Second up: John Dykeman vs. Ben Weir

John creates juniper berry-rubbed bison loin accompanied by chive and sour cream mashed spuds, buttered asparagus and Bernaise sauce. His wine, the aptly named cabernet Sledgehammer, easily stands up to this rich plate. The potatoes and steak compete for attention; both are lavish and the meat does not outshine the starch. John admits that his initial dessert did not (pardon the pun) pan out, and he presents rhubarb cheese cake with white and milk chocolate sauce. Placing the cake in a bowl separates it from the sauce - not a good thing.

Ben conjures up rhubarb and bison shepherd's pie with green salad. It's different. Good different. Liberty School Cabernet is an amenable choice. The veggies within the pie could be a bit larger and the meat could be a bit finer, but it works. Ben's dessert showcases rhubarb sauce alongside cream cheese-filled crepes flecked with chocolate. They are rich, sweet, and could be a dessert-entree unto themselves.

Only eight points separate the contestants but, ultimately, Shirley and Ben move to the finale. In two days, one will triumph as CHG's Top Chef. Stay tuned.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Remedy Cafe - A Pound of Cure

I had the distinct pleasure of dining with Marlow Moo recently. For those of you who have not yet stumbled upon the clever musings of this learned bovine, Marlow is a small and very well dressed cow who dines in Edmonton (and occasionally travels abroad). On a fine spring day, where I dare say the threat of snow was nowhere to be seen, we lunched at the perennially popular Remedy Cafe.

Remedy occupies a treasured spot in the collective palates of those that frequent the Garneau-University area. It's a hang-out for university students of all faculties and countless others that work and recreate in this neighbourhood. The building itself was once a bowling alley, though its present decor and floor plan make it difficult to imagine what this must have looked like. Many come simply for the chai; the chai is the fodder of legend. No fewer than 32 distinct spices go into this beverage, and all are imported from India by owner Sohail Zaidi. The recipe is secret.

I order chai and samosas - a simple lunch with flavours of the Subcontinent. The chai is tremendously nuanced, with layers of flavour that swoon from warm to heady to alluring and back again. Each samosa is perfectly golden and crisp on the outside, and this golden shell easily parts to reveal a steaming interior of potatoes, peas and onions that sing of curry and fennel. Marlow tucks into crisp, honey-rich baklava and a refreshing iced coffee. I have yet to try the many cleverly-named cakes in Remedy's cooler. Next time, chai and cake are in order.

Remedy on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 19 May 2011

CHG Top Chef Round Two - The Great Eight

Last week on CHG Top Chef, sixteen culinary upstarts created scallop-based amuse bouches in hopes of impressing the panel of judges and proceeding to the next round. On this fine Saturday afternoon, only eight chefs remain.

Who will be eliminated tonight?

[Cue theme music]

Pork, sourced from that magical creature that provides us with bacon, ham, chops and proscuitto, will star in the day's creations. In addition, competitors must incorporate sage, Granny Smith apples, bacon, prawns and/or figs into their dishes. Each competitor has half an hour to brainstorm and 45 minutes to prep, cook and plate their creations. (Click here to view the photo album in its entirety)

First up: Shirley Fortez vs. Scott Cowan. Shirley mesmerizes with pork loin and deconstructed potato gratin with figs and apple. It's visually stunning and, although it is a veritable riot of flavours, it works. Scott presents bacon-wrapped pork loin with caramelized apple sage chutney. It's a solid concept but the onions are domineering. Shirley will compete in the next round.

Second up: Cedric Boeglin vs. Cole Colley. Cedric wraps his pork loin with bacon and tops it with a rainbow-hued apple-pepper slaw, while Cole conjures up images of Korea with pork loin bulgogi, served with lettuce wrappers and tiny tortilla strips. Cole's originality is intriguing but Cedric's deft presentation and balanced flavours bump him to the next round.

Third up: John Dykeman vs. Eric Amyotte. Eric pairs pork loin with spicy fig jam and bacon-braised leeks; the pork is tender but the figs are overly dominant. John anoints his pork with lick-worthy pan juices amped up with cream, apples and a brown sugar crust. The entire dish encapsulates autumn and catapults John to the next round.

Last up: Andre Nedd vs. Ben Weir. Ben stuffs and rolls pork loin with sage-basil pesto and serves in with apple-fig salad, and Andre dusts his pork with Masala spices, stuffs it with prawns and serves it with wedges of naan. Andre's spices are aromatically evocative of the Subcontinent but the prawns add little to the dish. Ben's pesto is a bit "busy" but bumps him to the next round.

Only four chefs remain. Who will be crowned CHG's Next Top Chef?

Saturday, 14 May 2011

A photo is worth 1000 phrases of verbosity

I favour verbose description over photographic evidence of my dining adventures, but today I take the opposite stance: a visual tour through some infamous dishes on Corso 32's new menu.

Addendum: A photo is still worth 1000 bits of verbosity, but sometimes a bit of verbosity is worth its weight in clarity!

Coppa di testa with baguette and grainy dijon. An unctuously satisfying intersection of porcine flesh with toasted wheat and a goldenrod pop of mustard.
Testadura goat cheese with buckwheat honey and fresh pepper. A muted tang anointed with a sultry hint of a summer pasture.
Rabbit ravioli with chard and the merest hint of cheese. Thumper did not die in vain.
Ravioli with goat cheese and pine nuts. Crunch meets tender meets seductive smooth.
Zeppole: Italy's answer to fritters. A hot, sexy crunch with a gentle sugar snowfall.
Yes, it was my birthday...!

Pistachio and olive oil cake with blood orange and mascarpone. Another deft pairing of textures and flavours. The demure semi-tropical punch of citrus with the understated crunch of nuts. The rich whip of mascarpone married to the easy crumb of cake.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

CHG Top Chef Round 1: The Sweet Sixteen

We are all competitors, consciously or not. We gauge our own performances against the feats/failures of others and are simultaneously evaluated by our peers. This everyday undercurrent of competition may escalate to the point where we seek out competition; we intentionally search for the opportunity to show the world - and ourselves - that we are the best in show. And hence, we have the Olympics. The Derby. The Indy 500. Chefs in Edmonton's Century Hospitality group (hereafter, CHG), which includes the likes of Lux, Century Grill, Delux Burger Bar and 100 Bar + Kitchen, have their own venue: CHG Top Chef.

CHG Top Chef begins with 16 chefs that operate with CHG's various restaurants. On a drizzly Saturday morning, May 7th, they compete one on one.  All are challenged to create an appetizer that centers on scallops in a tight, 30 minute time frame. The dishes will be evaluated by a panel of four chefs: CHG's own Paul Shufelt, educator-foodie Valerie Lugonja, radio/marketing personality Shauna McKay McConechy and food writer Mary Bailey. They will decide which competitors move to the next round based on the flavour, presentation and overall creativity of each dish.

(Two beautiful chefs stand before me, but I have only one photo in my hand. The chef whose name I do not call must return to the kitchen here in beautiful Edmonton, collect your things, and go home. So who stays in this competition? Please click here to see the entire photo album.)

First pair: Shirley Fortez vs. Brandon Kaduk. Shirley's pan-seared scallop with mandarin slaw prevails over Brandon's scallop with deep fried spuds and onions with citrus cream. Shirley moves to round two, though the judges recommend that she move out of such safe territory.

Second pair: Nic Barron vs. Scott Cowan. Nic's scallop with asparagus, potatoes and a pancetta is intriguing but Scott's scallop with honey bacon atop smoky-sweet tomatoes noses ahead. Scott will compete next week and Nic is reminded that the sum of the parts do not make the whole.

Third pair: Vilma Cassamiro vs. Cedric Boeglin. Vilma's scallop atop julienned veggies is visually stunning but the sun-dried tomatoes seem out of place. Cedric's ceviche is a welcome break from seared scallops, and he moves to the next round.

Fourth pair: Cole Colley vs. Stephane Moreau. Cole presents a sizeable creation that places a scallop atop veggie linguine and tomato-rhubarb veracruz sauce, while Stephane earthy creation places the shellfish with mushrooms. Cole's portion size is a bit much while Stephane's seasoning is a wee bit inconsistent; ultimately Cole triumphs.

Fifth pair: Rob Frisen vs. Ben Weir. Rob spices up his scallop-arugula-basil salad with anise while Ben's scallop two ways includes ceviche in a martini glass and a seared scallop plus button mushroom. Judges agreed that Rob's tasted better than it looked and informed Ben that the ceviche was the stronger part of his entry. Ben will compete in round two.

Sixth pair: Erica Krumpitz vs. John Dykeman. Erica adds a dose of chili oil heat to her scallop with brown butter spuds, and John keeps it simple with a slab of boar bacon underneath his scallop with citrus zest. Erica's taste of fire is refreshing but John's minimalism prevails.

Seventh pair: Eric Amyotte vs. ?? Eric's competitor is a no-show, so Paul steps in and creates a scallop carpaccio with citrus segments. Eric's searing is top-notch and his judicious anointment of sesame oil bumps his entry to round two.

Eight pair:  Andre Nedd vs. Lindsay Bell. This is the closest race of the day. Andre creates a fragrant tomato-curry broth with which to surround his scallop while Lindsay dextrously concocts a supple and lick-worthy citrus beurre blanc. It's a tough call. The mushrooms in Andre's broth are superfluous while the citrus in Lindsay's beurre is a bit lost. In the end, Andre moves on.

Tune in next Saturday to see who is still in the running towards becoming CHG's Top Chef...

Thursday, 5 May 2011

The Marc - Marc My Words

I am continually heartened by the proliferation of new and notable restaurants in downtown; they spring from the hardened earth like so many crocuses after the snows of winter have melted away. The Marc leads a trend of restaurants setting up shop in the area just surrounding downtown. Their cuisine may be described as French, but without the air of pretense that typically accompanies our thoughts about all things Gallic.

I venture to The Marc for my birthday supper and find myself in a room characterized by clean lines, diffuse light, and a muted palette of black and white.  I sip a crisp, tart glass of pinot grigio and nibble on a crusty slice of baguette caressed with butter.

Next up: Diver scallops with peas a la francais. Here is an intersection of earth and sea. Vibrant green chlorophyll meets sweet, understated salinity. Tender scallops, toothsome peas. Beautiful to the eye and to the palate.

Owner Patrick Saurette brings two surprises: fries with garlic aioli and steak tartare. The fries put fast food offerings firmly in their place. Crispy exterior, tender and steaming interior. The velvety aioli sings - but does not assault - with garlic. The steak tartare is beef in its purest form, untouched by heat and spice. A tiny cornichon is the only accompaniment necessary.

 Tonight's special is Mahi-Mahi with barley risotto, asparagus and tomato jam. The mild, meaty fish is elevated by the summery tomatoes. The barley is studded with crisp walnuts and tangy cranberries and the asparagus, like the tomatoes, hints of impending summer.

Dessert is a perenially difficult decision and, stuck in a characteristic bout of indecision, I choose chocolate cake with sour cherries (no photo, alas) and beignets. The latter is a French-Cajun spherical doughnut. The Marc, I believe, has cornered the market on these deep-fried confections. They are hot, dusted with sugar, impossibly tender, and served with caramel sauce and creme fraiche for dipping. I am satiated, impressed and anticipating the opening of Marc's patio to further savour these victuals. I will return. Marc my words.

The Marc on Urbanspoon

Monday, 2 May 2011

Eat Alberta - A Feast for the Senses

Eat Alberta, held in Edmonton on April 30th, 2011, was a celebration of Alberta's homegrown culinary feats and practices. Imagine a day where one can forget the troubles and bustles of the outside world and, instead, slip into a world that abounds with tantalizing scents, flavours, textures and - above all - education in the ways of local food.

Alberta's collective culinary knowledge is enviable, and it spans an impressive spectrum that encompasses farming, animal husbandry, baking, preserving, and perpetuating all of these traditions. Attendees at Eat Alberta were treated to several keynote speeches: philosophical insights into local farmers Jennifer Berkenbosch and James Vriend's (of Sundog Organic Farm) connection to their land, and forays into the storied and complex lives of farmers, all captured by Kevin Kossowan's "From Local Farms" film series.

It was difficult to select sessions from the impressive roster of hands-on workshops. Goat cheese tasting, hosted by Holly Gale of Smoky Valley Goat Cheese, presented six artisan incarnations of goat cheese (pictured below). Our senses were guided through the nuances of scent, texture and flavour inherent in each. One - St. Maure - could be described as lazily sweet, slightly chalky to the nose and lightly crusty to the touch, while another - Annette - is firm but yielding and subtly bitter with notes of mould and herbs.

Worldly foodie Kathryn Joel (of Get Cooking in Edmonton) instructed participants in the art of pasta making. The process requires focus and patience; the ingredients are simple (flour and eggs), but one must slowly incorporate the correct amount of flour into the eggs and knead vigourously until the ideal, silky but firm, texture is achieved. A simple pesto Genovese - heady and fragrant with garlic and basil - allows the noodles' toothsome essence to shine. This session has an additional bonus: I am no longer jealous of David Rocco.

Home Coffee Brewing Techniques, explained by Chad Moss of Transcend Coffee, outlines the intricacies inherent in three common java brewing methods: French press, drip and aeropress. The same variety of coffee will express different notes, depending on the technique. French press produces a coffee with a heavy, lightly gritty, body, while drip coffee possesses a greater rainbow of flavour notes within the brew. Moss advises avoidance of percolators, for this method ejects flavour compounds from the grounds - the result is a room that smells like great coffee, but the liquid leaves much to be desired.

The day was over too soon, and so much more could be discussed. The artistic charcuterie at lunch. The camaraderie. The riotous raffle for the espresso machine. The honey tasting. The deep sense of gratitude that comes with acquisition of new skills, forging of personal connections, and gaining a heightened appreciation of the depth and breadth of culinary knowledge that our city and province is so fortunate to possess.

 Making pasta requires patience but the end result is worth the effort.

A snowy kaleidoscope of goat cheese. From the bottom (clockwise) Valencay, St. Maure, Annette, Farmer's, Tomme and Chevre.

Charcuterie for lunch included (from the bottom, clockwise) duck, wild mushrooms, bison with berry sauce, bread, and cheese.


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